By the fourth beer, the thought of skipping town was sounding more and more appealing to Jansen. Maybe he could sign on with Sed and be a pirate. Pirates needed mages, right? Sure. Except Sed might want to spend time in Uhra. Or Numara. Which Jansen didn't want to, though he couldn't quite remember why. Numara was nice, with the pretty white stone and the pretty sea and the pretty flowers and the pretty queen...
Oh. Right. That was why.
Not nearly drunk enough yet, Jansen thought sourly, tripping on the tavern's flat doorstep. Stupid bartender kid, kicking him out.
If he left now, he might make it out to the White Boa before they made that announcement he didn't want to hear. The trouble was, Jansen was pretty sure Ming was going to want to talk to him about it before there was any official announcement, because she was polite like that and wouldn't want him to hear this from anyone but her.
There were a whole list of things Jansen would rather do than go back to the palace, drunk and stinking of beer, to wait for the woman he loved to tell him she had to marry someone else. But if he left now, he had the feeling that for the rest of his life, the voice in the back of his head would be calling him a coward. It might be true in some cases, but not about this. Never about this.
Well, he'd be giving Ming a real good look at why she was making the right choice, anyway. Jansen braced himself on the nearest building, which was only a little crooked, and took a reading on the direction of the palace. There were two of them, overshadowing all the other buildings, but they were pretty close together, so he figured he could make it.
Reaching the palace was somewhat easier than convincing the guards that he was supposed to be there. Jansen found a handy wall to prop himself up and argued, "Seriously! I sailed 'round the world at least a couple times with your king. I am a guest." He'd never realized how hard that word was to pronounce before, and it took him three tries. The guard didn't look any more convinced when Jansen got it right, either. He was an especially large guard, and he scowled like an Arthrosaurus.
In the middle of Jansen's internal debate over whether it would be rude to cast a sleep spell, or whether casting anything would just get him beaten up by the other guards, a voice he definitely did not want to hear said, "Jansen! There you are!"
Tolten, King of the Magic Republic of Uhra, which was a stupid title, and the man that Jansen most wanted to punch, dashed out from the palace entrance in his blindingly gold armor and waved the guards away. "Are you all right? Ming's been looking everywhere for you."
"Fine," Jansen said, pushed away from the wall, and found himself leaning on Tolten's gold arm. "A little drunk," he admitted, and unwillingly let himself be guided inside. It would be so much easier to hate Tolten if the kid weren't always so blasted nice.
Maybe it wasn't true, he thought, in sudden, painful hope. People did get things wrong. Especially people who gossiped in taverns. "Listen, I heard the weirdest thing about a wedding--"
The King of Uhra looked instantly guilty. "How did you hear about that? The Council only brought it up this morning."
Hope dying, Jansen mumbled something and stepped on Tolten's foot. The armor defeated him, but it was the thought that counted.
"I know Ming didn't have a chance to talk to you yet, but the Council was so set on it, and no one knew where you were..." Tolten could look way too appealing. "I'm really very sorry."
"I'm sure you are," Jansen muttered. "Where's Ming?" Might as well get this over with. Then he could go...somewhere. Gohtza needed plenty of help rebuilding. That was nice and far from Numara.
Tolten pointed him down the corridor to the guest suites, and took his leave, sounding more awkward than ever. Jansen ignored him. He could hear Ming's harp music even from the hallway, as gentle and beautiful and sad as the first time he'd ever seen her.
He meant to open the door quietly, slip in, and listen till she noticed him. The door decided not to support him, leaping out of his grasp and closing behind him with a thud as he hit the ground hard. The music stopped abruptly and Ming turned, startled, to blink at him.
"Um, sorry?" He grinned sheepishly at her from the floor.
Ming was wearing an especially well-polished set of her usual clothes, the formal Numaran costume that was also, not by coincidence, travel wear and battle armor, but her hair was loose and fell in soft waves around her face. Jansen had to take a few moments to appreciate the effect.
She frowned at him. "Are you drunk, Jansen?" Oddly enough, it didn't sound like an accusation. Puzzled curiosity lifted her delicate eyebrows.
Jansen tried to find a way around this question, but there really wasn't one that didn't involve lying. "Yeah, I--uh, it seemed like a good idea at the time." He tried to hold the grin, but it slid away from his grasp like melting ice.
"I am glad you came," she said, setting her harp carefully aside. "I need to talk to you."
There was something cold squeezing his heart. "I thought your harp was back on the ship," he said, in a desperate play for a few more seconds.
Ming touched its smooth curve. "It was, but the last few days have been quite frustrating, and Tolten was kind enough to send for it."
And that had been no help at all. "How nice of him," Jansen growled under his breath.
Her forehead creased slightly in a frown. "I'm not sure we can talk at all if you are this drunk. Do you mind?" Magic glinted in her hand, and before Jansen could gather the wit to protest that yes, really, he'd rather be drunk for this, it washed across him, bringing an unwelcome clarity. He should've known he'd regret teaching her that use for the Cure Poison spell.
Wearily, he climbed to his feet, leaning on the doorframe, and waited for the final blow to fall. It wasn't Ming's fault. She was doing her best for her country. Tolten probably was, too. Which didn't change the fact that he'd rather be back in the deadly light from the Mirror than preparing to hear this.
Ming studied him, her eyes very sharp. "Jansen, what is the matter?"
He shrugged, looking away. "You wanted to talk to me about the wedding, right?"
"Yes. I take it you've heard about the Council's suggestion." She sighed, a long and irritated noise, and ran her hands through her long hair. "Although Tolten is recognized as the king of Uhra now, of course, the Council will probably keep most of its power locally. They've proven very capable of looking after the people, they have popular support, and it would be foolish for Tolten to make enemies of them when he can avoid it. I won't sell Kakanas's tanks, and I can't commit Numara to an exclusive trade agreement when Khent and Gohtza need aid so badly, but the Council needs some visible sign of friendship."
Jansen nodded, feeling numb. Politics. He had to go and fall in love with a Queen, and he understood politics like a rock understood sailing.
Ming continued, "I wanted to ask you about it first, but they were willing to give in on all the other points we've been arguing over for three days..." She grimaced, looking uncharacteristically old. "I am so tired of the arguing. I hoped you'd understand."
"Understand," he echoed, blankly. "Sure. Best thing for Numara. And Uhra. And all that."
"Jansen..." Ming stepped toward him, her voice low and troubled. "Please, tell me what is wrong."
He forced his head up and pasted a smile on. "Sure, no, nothing, I get it. Have to make a show for the people and all."
Ming watched him for a long moment, during which he twitched and couldn't quite look at her. "So, you're all right with Tolten performing our wedding?"
Wait. What had she-- "What?"
"Tolten is going to come to Numara and perform the ceremony when I marry you," Ming repeated, without moving. "Do you mind, Jansen? Because if you do, we could stay here another week or two and renegotiate."
He ran this through his head twice more. It didn't change. "You mean you want to marry me?" It ended in a squeak that was not at all dignified, not that he could have made himself look any more like an idiot.
"Ah," Ming breathed, and reached up to cup his face gently in her hands. "Yes, Jansen. I want to marry you, very much. I thought you knew that."
She had made some fairly mind-blowing statements back on the ship, but with the whole queen thing, it was too complicated for him to assume anything. "You, being the Queen and all, and me, it's not like I--is everyone gonna, you know, be okay with it? I thought, maybe Tolten was, you know, a better, a better king, and stuff." Honestly, he kind of figured the Numarans would hate the idea of a penniless foreign commoner marrying their queen.
Ming lifted her chin, and didn't let go of him, forcing him to meet her gaze. She'd never looked more queenly. "I have led Numara for a thousand years, and I am well able to keep my country strong without using marriage as a tool," she said fiercely. "I will marry for love, or not at all. Jansen, you are not my dirty secret, or my private shame. You are the man I love, and I want to make my vows to you before my people and live with you all your life."
Jansen felt heat rising in his face. "That's, uh...wow," he whispered, completely wordless for once in his life.
She grinned at him, a sudden, impish look that struck sparks in his heart. "And if any Numaran refuses to share my joy, they are free to leave. Gohtza is in need of immigrants."
It startled a laugh out of him. "That's better," Ming said, approvingly. "I was quite worried about you for a moment." She hesitated, and stepped back a fraction, hands dropping to her sides. "So? Will you marry me? I know it will mean less freedom than you have been accustomed to..."
"I would do anything, if it makes you happy," Jansen said, not really surprised to find the words absolutely true. "I just can't understand--why me?"
Ming's eyes went very deep, and Jansen felt for a moment that looking into them was like falling through her thousand years. "Because you were never afraid of me, but you never saw me as a path to power. Because you made me laugh," she said, with a raw honesty he hadn't expected. "You make me feel like a human and not a marble statue, and if we only have a few short decades together, I want to share everything I am with you for as long as you live, and treasure the memory all my life."
He breathed, for what felt like the first time in hours, and reached, tentatively, to thread his fingers through her hair. There was nothing he could offer her in return for words like those, no speech that would be grand enough, nothing at all except himself in return for her. "I love you," he whispered, and pulled her closer to demonstrate.
A while later, when Ming's hair was thoroughly mussed, Jansen thought of something and drew back to ask, "Do we have to tell people what I thought? Because I think I was a little stupid there...kinda pathetic, really. We don't have to tell Tolten, do we?"
Ming laughed, bright as a chiming bell, and agreed, "We don't have to tell anyone." And then went back to proving that she, at least, didn't think he was pathetic at all.
Notes: This use of Cure Poison theorized by Wei Jiangling in Midnight After, which is a very cute tag to the scene at the inn that you should go read and review. It makes so much sense to me that I couldn't not use it.
This fic is dedicated to my sister, for her birthday. Such innocent comments as "I'd like to see an actual proposal," and "Why do you think Tolten married them, anyway?" led to this prolonged torture for poor Jansen. But that was mostly my fault.
Please review! Especially if you want me to be inspired and write more.