82. If/83. And

Jade had been a skeptic since childhood. Certainly he learned doctrine and Score well enough when he was a teenager, but he never placed any faith in them or allowed them to dictate his life. The Score said nothing of fomicry, for one, which meant that his annual readings were vague at best, and had little to do with his real activity.

Even so, he was occasionally forced to wonder about hypotheticals. Every time he stepped into the audience chamber, the words of the Closed Score sprang unbidden into his mind.

ND 2018: The Kimlascan army will stain the Malkuth throne

with the blood of the last emperor.

Rationally, it was nonsense. Even if the Score had ever held any power over their lives, it was broken now. Peony was—not safe, exactly, but only susceptible to the normal dangers of empire, not some inescapable doom.

But if the Score had not been overthrown, if it persisted… The image of the throne, bloody and empty, was a powerful one, superimposing itself over all Jade's memories of Peony sitting there, slouching or sprawling across it with his legs dangling off one side when he could get away with it.

He'd never tell anyone, least of all Peony, but the turning of the year was such a weight off his shoulders that he kissed him and refused to explain why.

"…And what is it?" It was the first day of the new year, and when Peony's search for Jade had lead him to the other man's office, Jade had jumped up and kissed him. Well, not jumped, but Peony felt the surprise of Jade initiating anything gave him the right to exaggerate. Especially since Jade only ever initiated things for a reason. "What's the occasion?"

"What do you mean?" Jade was looking entirely too innocent to be believable. Peony laughed and couldn't resist wrapping himself around his colonel, though he still questioned it.

"Jade, I'm not completely stupid. I know you kissed me for a reason. What's up?"

"Not completely stupid? So you finally admit you are stupid, then, Your Majesty?"

"NO! NEVER! That's not what I meant! And you're trying to sidetrack me."

"Why ever would I want to do that?"

"Because… because—" Peony sputtered, "I don't know, that's why I asked you!" But his arguments didn't seem to be working, and Jade was in his arms without protest for once, so when Jade looked like he was about to respond with another sarcastic comment, Peony decided that Jade had the better idea to begin with, and kissed him.