Part One

Uhra hadn't changed much.

Well, the enormous holes in the ground, those were new, and there were places where huge, clawed footprints were clearly visible in the stone. And Gongora was gone, which was a definite improvement. People were talking about King Tolten with fresh and startled respect, or else an enthusiasm prompted mostly by shame.

In the neighborhoods Jansen knew best, though, nothing was really different at all. Dust coated the yellow stone, but there was little other sign of battle. The Gohtzan army had known their targets, and unlike Gongora, they hadn't carried the fighting into the residential areas.

No, his apartment looked the same as it always had--drab, in poor repair, and small. Jansen scuffed his shoe on the dusty street, tracing the cracks between paving stones, and sighed. Just as well he was doing this alone, really. He'd seen where all his friends lived, and even the kids with their house in the ruined city had him outclassed. Sarah and Kaim had a literal mansion. Sed, well, piracy had its own standards and he had to admit the Nautilus was an impressive ship. Tolten was a proper king now, complete with palace.

He wouldn't have wanted any of them to see this. Turning down their offers of company and coming alone would definitely have been the right thing to do, no question. If anyone had, y'know, offered to come.

Jansen grimaced irritably at himself and hurried up the outside stairway. There had been a railing once, but it had been gone long before the Gohtzan attack. His apartment was on the end, and had the primary benefits of being private, and being cheap. Running errands for Gongora had never paid much until that last assignment.

He'd left the key with his landlady, he was almost sure; right before that ill-considered night at the tavern with most of the money. Hopefully the building still belonged to her, though he couldn't imagine her letting anything short of complete destruction pry it from her wrinkled fingers. He knocked at the first door, and waited, idly straightening his hair.

And knocked again, and waited.

Just as he was about to try the fourth time, the door creaked open, and the familiar wrinkled face frowned suspiciously at him. Jansen tried on a charming smile, not that it had ever worked on her before. "Hi, ma'am, I'm, uh, I'm back. Can I have my key?"

Her eyebrows went up. "Well, if it isn't Jansen Friedh, alive after all! Here all the girls were saying you'd gone to Grand Staff and got yourself killed." She scowled, absently. "Going to cost me two gold, you are. Nina bet me you'd be back."

"Really?" Jansen asked, startled. Nina, his landlady's niece, who worked at the Monorail Central Station, had always hated him.

"Oh, sure. Nina said whatever happened, you were slimy enough to wriggle out of it." She shrugged. "But I've let the room to someone else. You want your stuff? There wasn't much."

Counting back, Jansen supposed he was well past his rent period. And it wasn't as though he needed a place to spend the night; he had his pick of palace rooms, plus the White Boa. "Yeah, I'd like my stuff," he said. Everything essential had come with him, but there were a few personal things he didn't want to lose, and it would be nice to have the extra clothes. Tolten had encouraged them all to visit the palace tailors if they wanted to, but Jansen would rather wear his own clothes than have a stranger fit him for some costume more appropriate for royal guests. Most royal guests looked like idiots, in his opinion.

She shut the door in his face. Jansen flinched back from the loud thump, and wondered why he was doing this, anyway. I helped save the world. A Queen kissed me. I don't live here anymore, I don't have to be who I was anymore.

But with Kaim and Sarah doing the tourist thing with their grandkids, and Sed dashing around in search of material and people for the resupply and repair of the ships, and Ming and Tolten very busy with treaties and trade agreements and fixing the complete chaos Gongora had left of Uhra's government, there wasn't anything better to do.

If I'm not who I was, who am I?

His former landlady slammed the door open again and shoved his second-best travel bag in his direction. Someone had fit his spare clothes and the few books and pictures he owned into it, certainly without rolling them together the right way and probably without even trying, to judge by its uneven bulges. Jansen sighed. "Thank you," he said politely. "Sorry about your bet."

She huffed at him and closed her door again. Jansen trudged down the stairs.

Maybe the trouble was that he had never really expected to survive the battle. Now that he'd actually managed it, he just wasn't sure what to do next. There was Ming, who'd said, unbelievably, that she wanted to stay in this world for him; but now that they'd survived, all her focus seemed to be on making sure that Numara and Uhra weren't going to go to war, with each other or anyone else.

Which was certainly a very proper focus for a Queen, and it wasn't her fault that Jansen didn't have anything helpful to contribute. Or that all the high-level Uhrans looked at him as though he were something she'd forgotten to wipe off her boot. Most of them had known him as Gongora's messenger, and now that they'd been introduced to Gongora's true colors, none of them liked or trusted Jansen. He was sure Ming would set them straight if he mentioned it to her--okay, mostly sure--well, almost. But it was easier for everyone if he just wasn't there. Especially since he didn't understand more than one word in three once they got going on all the vitally important aspects of the treaty, like how many fish Uhran ships were allowed to take from the southern sea.

He'd hardly spoken to Ming in three days. Just that morning, Mack had informed him that Ming had been hunting Jansen down for a little private time, but that a message from Tolten had arrived and she'd had to put on her Royal face and storm off again. Well, Mack hadn't put it quite like that.

Jansen blinked, looking up, to find a familiar sign staring back. Without conscious direction, his feet apparently defaulted toward the nearest tavern. He chuckled softly. Might as well; nobody needed him for now, and a mug or two of beer wouldn't hurt anything.

It was early afternoon, past the midday crowd and well before any but the most serious drinkers were ready to begin the evening, and the tables were empty except for two men in the leather pads of off-duty soldiers. Jansen found a stool at the bar and signaled the bartender for a drink.

What he needed was a job, Jansen decided, fiddling with his hair while he waited. He'd never been a fan of volunteering for work, but not having anything to do just wasn't very much fun. There had to be something an experienced and powerful black mage could do around here, besides babysit, which was clearly out of the question and also the only thing Kaim had come up with. No, thank you, he had enough of a bruise on his leg already, why give Cooke more chances to kick him? He'd been careful not to mention his previous track record in keeping kids out of trouble.

Maybe the clean-up crews needed help. He could blow stuff up for them. That might be kinda interesting.

The bartender, a young man with stains on his apron who was clearly new at this, brought his beer with considerable slosh down the side of the mug. Jansen dragged a coin out in return. At least he had plenty of money, between the rewards they'd been getting from grateful strangers the whole trip and Tolten's insistence that all of them should have something to spend while they were here. He just couldn't think of anything he wanted to buy.

It was a very strange feeling. He took a large gulp of beer to see if being a little drunk would feel more like normal, but he rather suspected that normal had escaped him the day he'd first agreed to go with Kaim and Seth.

Behind him, one of the Uhran soldiers raised his voice to scoff, "The Queen of Numara? The thousand-year-old one who's never been married, that Queen? You better not have any more to drink, or they'll put you on report!" Jansen involuntarily pricked up his ears.

The other insisted, "No, it's true! I had it from Kyras--you know, my cousin's brother-in-law, the one in the Council guard. To seal the treaty, the Council wants King Tolten to marry the Queen."

"But she hasn't agreed to it, has she? There'd have been announcements all over the place."

The soldier clunked his mug to the table. "Just today she has. Kyras was telling me he didn't think she was very happy about it, but she signed the treaty, so there you are."

With a skeptical snort, the first man got to his feet, his chair creaking. "One of these days, someone's gonna figure out you're the one dropping state secrets everywhere you go, and they aren't gonna be real happy about that."

"Oh, come on, you and the guys are always asking me what I've heard," the well-informed soldier protested, and they both trooped out of the tavern without a backwards look.

Jansen stared at his beer without seeing it. Tolten--and Ming? It wasn't possible, she'd have told him--

He'd been making himself scarce lately. And Ming had wanted to talk with him. What if this was what she'd wanted to talk about?

This treaty was desperately important to Ming. Numara and Uhra were the only countries left with enough resources to carry on a war, and neither of them could rebuild properly if the populations were always expecting an attack. No matter how unlikely it was that Ming or Tolten would declare war on each other, their people had to see that, had to know that, which wasn't easy after all Gongora's lies and Kakanas's plots. Ming had explained all this to Jansen, and he'd even listened to most of it. She was absolutely gorgeous when she felt that strongly about something.

So Tolten was the heir to the Royal House of Uhra, and possibly the key to Numara's wellbeing, which Ming had been guarding for all her thousand years. And Jansen was a former thief who'd joined the group as Gongora's puppet and spy. Yeah. Real tough choice there.

Jansen ducked his head and signaled for another beer.