ChapterThirty: Preparations and Advances

Astha spent the remainder of that night writing out notices for planning meetings and inspections. It was dawn by the time she finished the last of them and gave them to Oyaji-san, but still...she was satisfied with the results of her efforts. There was plenty of time for them to be delivered by the morning courier. She had faith in her servants, and her business partners and managers.

By mid evening that night, she'd received confirmation from all of her city contacts, and by the following night, from all of her estate managers as well. She spent the rest of the evening organizing her paperwork for each visit, and went to bed tired, but confident that things were going smoothly.

She spent the next evening with household repairs, and packing for her trip to the outlying estates. She took a look in on the breeding program as well, and spent several minutes petting her tiger, Athena. It looked as if the great cat had found a mate this time around, which pleased her. Athena was an excellent guardian of the household, but also very even tempered and gentle. If her suspicions were correct, she'd have a litter of cubs soon. She made a note to see which of the tigers her own pet was favoring. If it was someone elses, then she'd have to discuss the breeding fees with them. She smiled, scratched Athena behind the ears, and returned to her work.

She spent the next three days in inspections. The first two were night visits to the farms she controlled on the outskirts of the country. Most of them were prospering, though one was near the Dark Lands, and was suffering a bit of damage from the radiation that sometimes seeped over. She took a look at the damage, spoke with the farm manager, and promised to inform the radiation technicians in the court about the situation, and ask what could be done to counteract the effects. But it wasn't that uncommon a problem, and it was one her people were well equipped to deal with. And other than that, her lands were prospering.

She returned, pleased with how things were going. To her surprise, she found a message from Abel. It reassured her that he was well, and that he'd only called on a whim. It ended with a note that Oyaji-san had mentioned that she might be in the city to talk to her partners in trade, and a query as to whether or not she'd mind if he joined her.

Astha smiled and wrote a quick reply back, telling him when she intended to visit her merchant partners, and asking if, perhaps, he could join her, to give his opinion on the tailoring work being done for the Vatican members. She sent it off with one of her staff, and pretended not to notice the smiles that accompanied it. Her servants, like anyone elses, were interested in their master's relationships, particularly potentially romantic ones.

She was down to the shops an hour after sunset, and wasn't at all surprised to find a slender figure waiting for her. Abel was leaning against a nearby wall, dressed casually. He looked up as she approached and smiled warmly. "Miss Astha."

"Nightroad." She returned the smile. "You've been well?"

Abel laughed. "Yes, I have. Seth and I have done some talking, but honestly, between preparations for Alessandro, and preparations for the Summer Gathering...I've been far too busy to get into much trouble."

Astha laughed. "I've never known being busy to keep you from getting into trouble.'s good you're doing well." She gestured to the shop. "Shall we take care of business?"

"Oh, certainly. Though I do hope you'll let me take you to dinner afterward." Abel grinned. "And, if you have time, perhaps a quiet walk?"

She nodded. "I'd like that."

The business she wanted to conduct wasn't really all that complicated. Most of her interest was in the shipments they'd begun receiving from Albion, and how both her own merchants and her partners in the clothing business were handling it, as well as the response from their customers. As she'd expected, her merchants were still experimenting, both with the dyes and the leather-work, and with the fabric. Her tailor associates had even managed to make up a few sets of clothing, both in Imperial and Outer styles. Neither the new styles nor the new product had really caught on yet, but then, she'd hardly expected it to become a booming market overnight. There had been some clothing and leather goods sold, and so far, no complaints. For such early stages in the venture, it was quite satisfactory.

Abel examined some of the work the tailors had done, then purchased a set of clothing in one of the Albion styles. He also added a request for another order. Astha watched him, wondering what he was up to, but she didn't want to press him. There was an odd look on his face, somewhat nostalgic, as he wrapped his clothing up and stowed it in the bag he was offered.

After that, they examined the clothing being made for the Vatican contingent. The work was progressing quite well. They'd already produced two or three suits for the Pope, and at least one or two for each of his retainers. Abel chuckled over the one for Pertros, with it's incorporated leather bracing, to create a flexible yet stylish layer of protection for him. He also approved the work for Alessandro, and most of the others that he knew, though he recommended a slightly deeper red for Caterina's clothing, and less ornamentation for Tres.

Finally, they left the shops. Astha breathed a sigh of relief. She was always interested in what her partners were doing, and how business was being handled, but she had very little patience for administration duties. Despite her curiosity, she preferred to be doing things, not talking about them, or going over paperwork. And really, as useful as the information was, trading details weren't her strong suit.

Beside her, Abel laughed. "Paperwork is a little boring, isn't it?"

She snorted. "I don't know how you handle it, with all these treaties. I certainly don't understand how the Duchess of Moldova can stand it. I swear, if being an envoy for the Empress didn't keep things relatively interesting, I'd go crazy."

Abel laughed again. "Oh, I doubt that. I'm sure someone of your intelligence and skills would find something to do. In the meantime though...perhaps we could find a bite to eat? There's an excellent cafe a few streets over, and they serve extremely good tea."

Astha grinned. "That sounds excellent."

Abel's smile brightened. "Right this way." He turned and led her through the streets, stopping in front of a small, well lit establishment. "Ah. This should be the place." He held out his arm. "Shall we?" Astha grinned again, took it, and allowed him to lead her inside.

The tea was excellent, almost as good as the tea she remembered receiving from Sister Kate. The food was simple, but delicious and well made. She and Abel kept up a light conversation through the meal, catching up and exchanging news. Afterward, they took a quick walk through the city, to the shore. It didn't take long to find a nice place to sit and watch the ocean.

Asthat watched as Abel settled himself onto the stone, setting his bag to one side. She gestured. "What was that you bought?"

Abel blinked, as if he'd forgotten what he was carrying. "Oh, just something I thought looked interesting." He shrugged. " was a bit of an impulse buy."

"Maybe, but I know you ordered something else." She studied his face. "If you're doing this just to support me..." She wouldn't put it past him.

Abel shook his head. "No, it's really nothing like that. It's just...Albion was once my home, even if I didn't admit it. At the very least, it's where I was born. And now I have several friends there, you know. But I always seem to be in some sort of uniform when I go there. Do you know, I've never once worn normal Albion clothing in any form?"

She blinked, startled. "Never?"

Abel shook his head. "As a child, I was always forced to wear the Underground lab uniform, and then the military uniform for the Red Mars Project. By the time I returned, I was already a priest in the Vatican, so..." He gestured to the bag. "I've seen that style before, and I thought it looked nice, so I thought I might try it. Just once at least."

"I see." She shook her head, wondering at the kind of life he'd led. "I look forward to seeing you in it then." Silence fell between them again, and she broke it with another thought. "How are the preparations going?"

"Quite well, actually. We've gotten most of the rooms refurbished and aired out, done some alterations on the decorating to make our guests more comfortable, without being obvious that we're catering to them. The hardest part was moving the furniture around, and getting what we wanted for the rooms, but we're mostly finished."

Astha smiled at his warmth and enthusiasm. "That's excellent news." She looked out over the water. "Will you be attending the Summer Gathering?"

"Oh, certainly." Abel made a rueful face, though his eyes were smiling. "Summer is Seth's favorite season, you know. She'd be very put out with me if I didn't attend." His eyes were sparkling with amusement. "Besides, there happens to be an absolutely stunning woman I hope to meet there, so I can ask her for a dance. If she's not too busy."

Astha returned his grin in kind. "I'm sure she'll find the time. After all, any woman would be honored to share a dance with you." She glanced at the sky, already beginning to lighten, and rose to her feet. "I should return home. I have some reports to write."

"Of course." Abel rose as well, stretching as he reached a standing position. "I suppose I ought to head back as well. I'm sure Seth will have something for me to do." He smiled, then leaned forward to brush a gentle kiss across Astha's cheek. "I'll see you later, Miss Astha."

She caught his shoulder before he could move away, then turned her head to kiss him directly on the mouth. She held him for a moment, enjoying the feel of his lips on hers, then released him to smile into his eyes. "You can count on that, my partner."

Abel's smile widened. His fingers caressed her hand gently, then released her as he stepped away, vanishing into the faint light of dawn with a last smile and a wave. Astha watched for a long moment, then turned and headed for home, a smile on her face.

She reached the outer gardens as real dawn broke over the horizon. She felt tired, and satisfied, and in a much better frame of mind for tackling reports. Still, it didn't stop her from making a quick detour to find Athena, to give the tiger a thorough grooming and looking over. The big cat was as affectionate as ever, eager for a good scratch behind the ears and under the chin. Astha gave her a long brushing, and some well deserved attention, then rose and went inside to deal with the reports.

She finished the household reports by the following evening. The rest of the week she spent in the annual household organization and cleaning. Oyaji-san handled most of it but her office, with it's sometimes confidential paperwork, and her personal quarters, were hers alone to go through. She spent the better part of three evenings going through old reports and odd paperwork, deciding what was still relevant and what could be safely consigned to the fireplace. Then another evening going through her extensive wardrobe. She had several items that were out of date, and most of her summer wardrobe, as usual, needed a bit of freshening. She wasn't normally the most fashionable of the elite, but after becoming Constantine's assistant, she'd made sure to update her clothing more frequently. It simply wasn't appropriate for her to dress in outdated garments, not when serving as a diplomat, or aide to the Empress's brother.

She made arrangements with her servants to air out and clean the garments she would still wear, to put her winter wardrobe into storage, and donate the older clothing to merchants in the city. There were plenty of Terrans in the deeper parts of the city who were willing to buy clothing the nobles disposed of, knowing it would be in good repair most of the time. For the rest, the tailors and cloth dealers would salvage it, pick apart the threads, and use it in the creation of new outfits, or as training pieces for young apprentices.

Athena began showing the first signs of pregnancy, including increased appetite and a hint of broodiness. Astha had noted her tiger's chosen mate a few days ago. It was a fine beast, one she recalled as being from a litter a year or so after Athena's. Now that it looked like the attraction was bearing fruit, she wrote a message to the Duke to whom the beast belonged. The man came over the following evening to look both tigers over. After some discussion, Astha returned half the man's breeding fees, and promised him first pick of the cubs.

She had to admit, she was looking forward to having a litter from Athena. Her own pet was an excellent guard, but also a good companion, and well trained. She watched her tiger dozing in the yard, smiling as she remembered how, on their first assignment together, she'd offered to let Abel become her cat groomer when the Empire took over the world. Back then, it had been a joke. She hadn't thought she'd see him again. Or that, he'd be older, much older, if she did.

Perhaps I can give him one of the cubs. She rather liked the idea. She had a feeling that Abel would remember that initial meeting, and her final remark to him, as well as she did, and find the humor in the gift. Besides that, if the cubs were as even tempered as their mother, they would make good companions for Abel. She shelved the idea for when the cubs were born, just before fall, and made a note to ask Mirka or Baibars discreetly if the Empress would be interested in a cub as well.

Two nights later, the Summer Gathering arrived. Astha woke early, while there was still light in the sky. She wasn't as fond of Gatherings as some of the others, but still...she was looking forward to this one, if only as a chance to speak with the Duchess of Moldova about the cub for the Empress. Besides, she wanted to see Abel in the outfit he'd bought. She was curious how it would look on him, and how his attire would be received.

It was also the first Gathering since they'd become a couple. Astha frowned in the mirror as she adjusted the drape of her outfit. With everything that had been going on, she hadn't taken the time to discuss the matter with Abel. She had no idea how he intended to handle the situation, and she didn't want to do something to upset whatever plans he might have. But she also didn't want to hurt him, by acting too formal or cold to him. She sighed and resigned herself to acting as close to normal as she could, until she could get some idea of Abel's plans. She adjusted a final crease on her outfit, checked her jewelry and her hair, then turned to head down to her waiting carriage. She knew she'd be early, but there was no point in waiting and fussing about her rooms.

As it turned out, she was one of the first to arrive. Mirka was there, but the Duchess of Moldova was always one of the first at any function within the Imperial Star Palace. It was part of her responsibility, as the head of Her Majesty's Council, unless she was unavailable for some reason. Baibars was also there, in his capacity as the Chief of the Yenceri, and a few other nobles most of whom were known for arriving early, waiting until the Empress arrived, and then leaving early. Astha had done that often enough that no one acted particularly surprised with her early presence.

A glance at the clock told her it was just past eight. The Empress, she knew, would arrive at nine, when true dark began to fall. Constantine would most likely arrive with her. The majority of nobles would likely arrive within the next half an hour. She sighed, collected a glass of wine, and sought out the Duchess of Moldova.

She spent most of the next half hour in conversation with Mirka. The Duchess approved of a tiger for Constantine, but admitted that the Empress was fond of smaller animals, one reason the Duchess herself kept small house cats. Seth's preference was for birds, the occasional squirrel, and other small creatures. Astha filed the knowledge away for future reference.

The rest of the discussion revolved around the upcoming visit from the Vatican. Mirka had seen pictures of the pope, and was eager to meet him. She'd also done a great deal of the requisitioning for the furnishings for the pope and his entourage. She brought Astha up to date on the details of preparations, and in return, Astha told her as much as she could about the personalities of the Pope, Bishop Sforza, Brother Petros, and the rest of the entourage.

She was somewhat embarrassed that she couldn't give more detailed information on all of them, but Mirka only smiled. "Not having the information makes things more interesting. Besides...the Pope coming here? Even in disguise? That wasn't something I expected to happen in my lifetime, perhaps not even Ion's. Even if we're in for some surprises, this is such a wonderful development."

Astha nodded. "It is."

Slowly, the crowd of guests increased. She and Mirka went their separate ways, greeting nobles, exchanging news. It took work, but Astha finally located the Duke who owned Athena's mate, and gave him an update on the tigers, particularly Athena's pregnancy. Her tiger had so far suffered no problems, and it looked as if everything was going well. They spent a few moments discussing possible arrangements for the cubs, then drifted apart once more.

Then, on the stroke of nine, the great doors to the Inner Court were opened, revealing the solemn official who was the Imperial Herald. "Announcing the presence of Her Majesty, Augusta Veradica, the first and only! And the First Prince, August Constantine!"

Every noble in the room immediately dropped to their knees as the Empress's throne came through the door. Astha snuck a quick glance. Constantine was there, pacing gracefully beside the throne as rose to the dais. Once it had settled, he extended a hand and lifted the Empress from her seat.

"Rise, my beloved children." There was a rustle of clothing as the nobles did as commanded. "I welcome all of you here, tonight. Enjoy yourselves to the fullest." Then the Empress seated herself, and a band began warming up. The center of the hall was cleared for dancing.

Astha could hear the ripples of conversation flowing around the hall. There was a lot of surprise and interest in those whispers, and she couldn't blame them. She was still staring at Constantine.

She recognized the style, similar to the clothing that Lord Walsh had worn when they'd visited Albion, though this was slightly more ornate. He was wearing a silver-gray shirt, just a shade or two darker than his hair, satin or fine silk by the look of it. It had a high collar, unbuttoned at the top. He wore it with darker slacks, a closer fit than she'd observed in Albion men, and black boots. Over the shirt he wore a deep, emerald green jacket, the edges trimmed in silver and gold, and over that, the long, almost cloak-like jacket she'd seen Virgil Walsh wear. Deep black, with the Imperial insignia on the shoulders, also traced with silver and gold. The cuff-links of the jacket were gold and emerald. He wasn't wearing the stiff, crown-like cap that most nobles wore, including the Empress. Instead, he had his hair tied partially back, away from his face, but had left his head bare. His only jewelry was the pendant that held his personal seal, symbolizing his rank.

He looked...stunning. The clothing was elegant enough for any function, but the simple style of it suited him in a way that the jeweled and layered styles of the Imperial Court didn't. It was clothing that suited both his natural humbleness and quiet nature, and his rank and status. To Astha, it was as if he'd created an outfit that completely merged the priest he had been with the man he was now. And the result was impressive.

There was a call to announce the first dance of the evening. Astha saw him turn to the Empress, then take her hand and lead her to the floor. By now, the court had gotten enough used to it that they didn't vacate the floor the minute the Empress and her brother set foot on it. Certainly, they gave the Imperial pair plenty of room, but at least they didn't all rush away to the corners of the ballroom. Astha considered a moment, but she didn't have a partner, so she edged closer to the floor to watch.

The music started, and she kept her eyes on Constantine. The outfit he'd chosen was excellent for dancing, and the way the long coat swirled around him, in time to the music, added an air of grace and mystique to his movements. Astha could hardly take her eyes off him, and from the murmurs going around the room, she wasn't the only one to have noticed the effect.

The song came to an end, and Astha watched as Constantine escorted his sister back to the throne. She wanted to approach him, but there were other nobles already crowding him, and several of them held higher rank than she did. She sighed, then went and got herself a refill of her wine glass, trying to ignore the butterflies that were still dancing in her stomach.

She spent the next several minutes circulating the room, talking to people. Several of them wanted to know if she recognized Constantine's new style, and were extremely interested in where they could find other examples, or purchase their own. By the end of the first hour, Astha knew that she needed to send word to her merchants to buy more of the Albion cloth, as well as word to Virgil and Vanessa on other Court styles in Albion. She also knew that her tailor associates were going to be busy for months.

She'd just finished a conversation with another pair of noblewomen, asking on feminine styles, when a hand touched her shoulder. She turned.

Constantine was there, smiling. Astha swallowed, then bowed. "My Lord."

"Duchess of Kiev." She straightened, and he held out a hand in a formal gesture of invitation. "May I ask you for a dance?"

"Of course." She took his hand, let him lead her onto the floor. It was a couples dance, moderately slow. They settled into the rhythm, then she spoke. "You've caused quite a stir tonight."

Constantine...Abel laughed. "Yes, well. It wasn't entirely intentional. But I did like the outfit, and Seth said I might as well. Besides, I recall a certain lady of my acquaintance saying that she wanted to see me in Albion garb."

Astha grinned. "So I did." She studied him. Up close, he looked just as handsome and regal as he had before. "Well, you made quite an impression, my partner." She smiled into his eyes. "I suspect my business partners and I will be quite busy keeping up with the demand after tonight." She glanced over his outfit. "Was this what you bought that night?"

" That was a bit more casual. But I wanted to know if I could get something formal, and your friend said he'd try. I picked it up just yesterday. I really think they did a superb job. It was well worth the wait and the money."

"Yes it was."

They turned a few more steps, then Abel spoke, his voice quieter. "Ah...Miss Astha...would you partner me for the next dance as well?"

Astha blinked. "A second dance? You know that will cause comment."

"Well, yes. But I...well, I don't really like a great deal of attention, but still...I would rather have my attentions made known. It's...I should think that it would cause less trouble in the end." Abel's ears were turning pink. "Besides...He grimaced. "I swear...the sheer number of people who keep asking me about their daughters, or, heaven help me, flirting with me...I know the Duchess of Moldova doesn't mean it, but really, even her..."

Astha smirked, suddenly a bit more comfortable. "You want to use me as a shield against your admirers, Nightroad?"

Abel looked sheepish. "Well, perhaps a little. But really...I wish to be open about my feelings.'s easier for you, isn't it? If I ask you for a second dance?"

She understood what he was asking, and it sent warmth through her. Making their tentative relationship known in public like this would make it appear that he was courting her rather than her pursuing him. It wouldn't stop all the talk, but it would certainly cut down on some of it. And, as she'd been a envoy for years before she'd even met Father Nightroad or Constantine, and one of the primary contacts between Vatican and Empire, there couldn't even be much claim that she'd used him for her own position. There would be some jealous muttering, there always was, but nothing she couldn't handle.

The dance slowed to a stop. Abel stopped, still holding her hand. "Miss Astha?"

She smiled. "I would be honored to be your partner for a second dance." The song was called. "It sounds like a fast one."

Abel's smile was warm, and just a little...challenging, or perhaps mischievous. It wasn't an expression she saw on his face often, but she liked it. "Oh, I think I can keep up." Then the music started, and Abel spun her into the steps of the dance without another word.

It was obvious that he'd been practicing. But more than that, Astha felt the difference in the way he was moving within the first few measures. There was a fluidity, a grace and intensity about him that hadn't been there before. He'd never been inattentive, but now he focused all his attention on her. The blue eyes were warm, serious, and never left her face, except when the dance called for it. Astha felt herself caught up in it until there was nothing left in her mind but the music and the two of them.

It was an incredible feeling, dancing with such a focused partner. Dancing with him. Despite her natural stamina and her skills, Astha felt breathless by the time the song wound to it's end. And a bit disappointed that it hadn't gone longer.

Abel's cheeks were flushed as well, a slight hint of perspiration on his brow. But he was smiling, a warm, brilliant smile. "Well...that was quite a dance, Miss Astha. I think I'd like a drink after that. Shall I bring you one as well?"

Astha shook her head. "I'll accompany you, my lord, if you don't mind."

Abel's smile was answer enough. "Of course I don't mind." He bowed, then took her hand and led her through the crowd.

Astha could hear the murmurs following them, running around the room like fire. She took a glass from Abel and sipped it, watching the nobles who were very intently pretending not to stare at the pair of them. She grinned over the top of her cup. "It seems you've created another stir tonight."

"Hmm...well, I can't say I'm very sorry for it, honestly." Abel smiled. "I'm a bit relieved actually."

"You and the Duchess of Kiev do make a most excellent couple." Mirka appeared around the table, holding a glass of her own and smiling with barely suppressed glee. "That was well handled, my Prince. And you, Duchess of Kiev."

"Thank you." Astha inclined her head to the Duchess.

Mirka smiled. "Her Majesty will be pleased. I suspect a large number of ladies will be disappointed, but..." She smirked. "I think the two of you will do well together." She tipped her glass to the two of them, then turned and vanished back into the crowd.

Astha would rather have not left Abel's side, but there were several nobles requesting the prince's attention, and several more she needed to speak to. Abel caught her eye and made a rueful face, then finished his wine and turned to the nearest lord politely. Astha followed his lead.

The next few hours passed reasonably smoothly. As expected, there were plenty of veiled questions about the relationship between herself and Constantine. Astha stuck to the truth. She'd met him while he was working undercover in the Outer, and they'd worked a joint mission, after which they had agreed to be tovarish. They'd renewed the association when he returned to the Empire. End of story. She freely admitted she found him to be handsome, and well mannered, and that she was fond of him and appreciated his attention. She made no response to any questions for further details. She wouldn't have even given that much, but she knew he was right. The less they hid, the less trouble they'd have later. She saw Constantine circulating the room, and wondered if he was dealing with the same questions she was.

The evening wound on, into early morning. Constantine led the Empress to the dance floor a few more times, and accepted dances from a few other ladies as well. He was perfectly polite to them, and he danced well, but the few times she had a chance to watch, she saw none of the intensity that had characterized their second dance. Nor did he appear to dance with any of them more than once. That knowledge made her mood considerably lighter.

Dawn was already sending golden light through the room before the Court began to disperse as the Gathering drew to a close. Finally, the musicians called for the last song. Astha found herself a spot near the floor. She suspected Constantine would dance the last song of the night with his sister, as he'd done before.

She watched him move toward the throne, speak to the slender figure seated on it, holding out his hand in a familiar gesture. She was too far away to hear what they said, but Constantine straightened, then turned, eyes searching the dance floor.

Blue eyes caught hers, and he smiled. He turned, said something to the veiled figure, then descended the steps. Astha watched, unable to do anything more than stare as he came to a stop before her and held out his hand. "Duchess of Kiev, may I request the honor of this dance?"

"I...yes, of course, my lord." She took his hand, moved out onto the floor with him as the music started. "The Empress..."

He laughed slightly. "This was actually her idea. To be honest, I was planning to dance the last song with her. I've done so at every other Gathering so far. But she insisted that she'd rather I asked you."

Astha smiled. "You are aware, my partner, that the last dance is either reserved for your escort, or for someone special?"

Abel laughed again. "Of course I am. And so is she. I do believe that was the entire point." His eyes caught hers, and he smiled again. Astha caught her breath at that smile, warm and kind and loving, without a hint of the darkness and sadness that seemed to follow him.

She swallowed, then forced herself to speak. "Well then...I am honored."

Abel's smile widened. "As am I."

The song was a slow, quiet one, as was custom for the last dance of the evening. Astha relaxed into the steps as Abel led her across the floor. She didn't normally favor slow dances, especially with the implied intimacy that came with them. But with Abel as her partner, it didn't seem nearly as awkward to her. She found herself smiling, enjoying the slow steps, the closeness, the feel of Abel's hands and the warmth of his proximity.

The song slowed, winding down. Abel led her through the final turn, then stopped. He held her a moment, then smiled and lifted her hand to press a kiss to the back of it. "Thank you, Miss Astha."

She blushed. "It was a pleasure, my lord." She was tempted, for a moment, to do something far more aggressive than let him kiss her hand. But there were still members of the Court present, and she wasn't willing to go that far in public, even if the manners of a formal court hadn't been against it.

The sound of a deep gong startled both of them. Astha turned, to see the throne of the Empress withdrawing from the room, a veiled figure still seated on it. She blinked. "I thought you were the escort for the Empress."

Abel looked amused, and slightly exasperated. "Well, I was. However, it appears my sister has other ideas. I think she's implying that I should offer to take you home, actually." He smiled, his cheeks slightly pink with embarrassment, then held out his arm. "If you would do me the honor of permitting me to escort you, Astharoshe?"

She started to voice a polite refusal, something about their respective ranks, the fact that he was the First Prince and she was just a Duchess. Then she stopped. Ranks aside, it was proper custom for a nobleman to escort his lady, or a lady he was courting, home after the Gathering. The Empress had already indicated she didn't require his attentions at her side. She relaxed, then looped her arm through his. "The honor is mine." Abel grinned at her, and led her from the hall.

The journey back to the Kiev estates was quiet. The sun was above the horizon, somewhat too bright for her tastes, but warm even in the early morning. Astha was content to enjoy it, and the presence of the man beside her.

Abel stopped at the base of the stairs to the main door, but didn't release her. "Ah, Miss Astha...have you gotten caught up on your family business?"

"Of course." She considered telling him about the tigers for a moment, then discarded the notion. She did want to surprise him, after all. "Do you require my services as an envoy?"

"Well, not particularly at the moment." Abel was blushing. "It's just, if you aren't terribly busy, I thought perhaps you could come to the Palace. Not tonight, but perhaps the night after. We really should go over the preparations for Alessandro's arrival in a week, to see if there's anything we missed. And I need to go with you to pick up all the wardrobes, if their ready. Not to mention, since you'll be serving with me, Mirka and Baibars thought you ought to be familiar with the arrangements we've made, in regards to living areas, and how to navigate the Inner Palace if needed. Especially in regards to where His Holiness and Bishop Sforza will be staying, and the Roman guards." he swallowed. "It's not that we're expecting any trouble, you understand, it's just that..." He was beginning to look flustered, for some reason.

She put a hand over his mouth. "I understand perfectly, my partner." She grinned. "It's been a while. I'll be glad to return to my diplomatic duties, working with you."

Abel flushed a slightly deeper red, then laughed softly. "You know, I didn't want to bother you too much, but I really did miss you."

"I missed you as well." She reached up to touch his face, catching his attention. "You do know, if you escort a lady home for any reason other than duty, you're expected to kiss her before you part."

Abel didn't bother to respond verbally. His hand came up to touch her jaw, then he bent forward and kissed her. His kiss was warm, like the sun on her back, and Astha leaned into it.

After a moment, Abel broke away. Astha let him. There was a part of her wishing very much that he had done more, but they were standing in public. No doubt her servants were watching through the windows as it was, and talking like mad. She smiled up at him. "I'll see you tomorrow night, Nightroad."

"I'm looking forward to it." Abel's thumb caressed her cheek, then he backed up three steps and bowed. "I wish you a pleasant rest, Miss Astha."

"You as well. Be sure you get some sleep." She smiled, then turned and went inside.

Oyaji-san was waiting to take her coat and hat, and offer a glass of water, and a gently murmured assurance that her maids were waiting for her, if she wished for a bath, or to go to bed. Astha felt tired, more than ready for bed, but it didn't stop her from turning to look out the window. Her eyes caught Abel's, then he waved, bowed his head once more, and turned away, headed back toward the Palace. Astha grinned, then turned to issue appropriate orders as she made her way to her bedroom. Half an hour later she was settled, the sheets pulled over her, already drifting away into slumber. Her last thought was one of contentment, and a little excitement.

No matter what happened with the Pope and his guards, one thing was certain. She was definitely looking forward to the next few days.

Author's Note: I'd originally intended to make this the Pope's visit, but these two really wanted some more time to just relax and get together. And for some reason...there was the whole thing with the tiger...

Anyway, a little bit of relaxation and such before the excitement hits. Next chapter: A Pope. An Empress. Several diplomatic persons and an even larger number of paranoid guards. What could possibly go wrong?