Romance, possibly cheesy and over-the-top, just so you're warned.
“I will have a statue built of you,” Bai said admiringly to Ressa when she appeared.
His assistant had taken his words to heart when he told her to find something pretty to wear, and she had managed to find a concoction in heavy velvet and soft linen that left exactly enough to the imagination, and still managed to expose a full portion of cleavage.
“It must be a golden statue,” Ressa with the barest hint of a pleased smile. “I will settle for nothing less.”.
“Golden,” Bai agreed. “And as tall as the front gates of the Counsel halls.”
“I think my natural height is quite enough to inspire fear and awe,” Ressa told him primly, and Bai found himself having to agree, at least with the ‘awe.’ She was taller than he was, by the width of a hand, and her figure was a glorious shape in proportion to her generous height. Her hair had been dressed by one of the Counsel hall hair shapers, and was piled in a heap of neat waves and collections of tight, bead-threaded braids. She could have been a statue, Bai thought. She had the stillness for it, and the beauty.
“I wish you had left me a dance,” Bai said half-wistfully, brushing am artful lock of her dark hair from her shoulder. The sleeves were beaded, and puffed, with long, tight wrists that ended in points.
Ressa tilted her chin down to look disapproving. “I told you, there was nothing about having to prance around a dance floor with a lead-footed man in my contract.”
“I haven’t given you your contract yet,” Bai teased her. It was a running joke with them, that she was the only secretary who hadn’t had yet signed away her life and future to the Counsel, because Bai had never gotten around to penning her a contract.
"I'm glad of it," Ressa said. "By the time that I sign it, you will have forgotten that you ever managed without me. I shall pry half the treasury from your miserly fingers."
Bai groaned in a manner that would have impressed a stage player. "I shall go broke," he lamented. "But I could never do without you."
The bells sounded, and Bai offered his elbow to Ressa, who gave him a serene smile. "Let me walk you to the entrance," he told her.
# # #
Ressa, resplendent in her finery, was snatched away at once, and Bai lost her in the crowd. He went through his dignitary motions with the appropriate people, and wandered through to the crowd to find a Northerner to speak with.
“If I’d know that being idolized was so entirely boring,” Kativa was saying to Birka, “I would have stayed home and popped out children like Kadra. At least with children, I wouldn’t have to explain Others over and over and over again.”
She looked abashed when Bai appeared over Birka’s shoulder, and shot the Counsel Head a half-way apologetic smile. "Current company not meant, of course," she said with a shrug. It was as diplomatic as Bai had yet seen her.
The Northerners were tall, if not as tall as Ressa, and pleasant to look at. Certainly they were better company than the average, favor-currying diplomat, so Bai offered Birka, who was closest, the extra drink he was holding. "You've done an admirable job of satisfying our curiosity," he told Kativa generously. In truth, the woman had done little but chatter aimlessly about anything that happened to catch her eye at that moment, but she had done so with such thorough cheerfulness and friendly candor that it was difficult to dislike her.
"And you, ours," Birka replied with the tact that Kativa lacked. She, at least, had proven a graceful, natural emissary of her people, easily loved, easily understood. She had picked up the pronunciations of the Southern speech quite quickly, and had no trouble adapting to the various expectations of the Counsel and the Scientists. The extra two months in the South put her in the position of teaching her kin the Southern ways, and the sociologists had remarked that the snow-unicorn riders were fitting in far better than they had expected. Not that the sociologists often had useful or accurate predictions.
"Birka says there will be dancing," Kativa said eagerly. "She told us..." she did not have Birka's handle of the Southern speech patterns, and her words tumbled too quickly for Bai to follow. A glance at Birka rescued him.
"Their dancing is different," she said firmly to her cousin. "Not..." she used one of the words that Bai had caught from Kativa, and he could guess that its meaning was not flattering.
"There is a promenade beginning now," he told the two women, and Kativa bounced in place like a child.
"A promenade," she repeated, with round sounds to the word where they didn't belong. "That is a fast dance or slow?"
"Slow," he said apologetically. "This is the dance that the old diplomats like me can keep up with and fat ladies can do without sweating."
Kativa blinked, and Birka supplied a word that was apparently not one of theirs. Kativa nodded. "An elder dance," she said with disgust, followed by a roll of her eyes and a sigh.
The instrumentalists on the balcony took a cue from a festivity coordinator and began the music. Bai bowed to Birka, as the senior ranking of the two Northerners, and offered her his elbow. "Lady," he told Kativa, "You will not be long without a partner." Already, several gentlemen were bearing down on their position.
Kativa smiled. "I have a partner," she said cheerfully. "I sleep with Kether now."
Birka coughed delicately and shook her head at Kativa. "They don't speak of those things," she reminded her, taking Bai's arm. "He meant a dancing partner."
Kativa had the grace to blush, glancing at Bai. "Sorry," she muttered in a distinctly unapologetic way. "I forgot you people were..." the word was unknown, but the meaning was clear; the Northerners found the Southerners to be puzzling and prudish about many things.
Bai had to grin. She reminded him of a niece, brash and thoughtless, but well-meaning and vibrant in the way of young people. "No offense taken," he said easily. "But try not to shock these young men, or you will surely get your feet stepped upon."
The young men in question had the good timing to arrive at that point, and jostle over who got to escort Kativa to the dance floor. She perked up at the attention, and smiled broadly at them as Bai led Birka away.
"Kativa is not always careful with her tongue," Birka said evenly as Bai showed her the footwork for the first formal dance.
"I have an appreciation for her plain talk," Bai replied honestly. "It would be surprising indeed if our cultures had the same concepts of appropriate after so much time apart, and there is a need for patience and free speaking to understand one another."
Birka nodded solemnly. "I would speak to you freely," she said after a moment, easily picking up the steps and moving gracefully beside Bai with no hint of strain. The dance was a slow march with repetitive footwork in a wide weaving pattern, more an opportunity for the guests of the festivities to show off their clothing to one another than any feat of effort.
"Please do," Bai invited.
"You would sleep with your assistant?"
Bai nearly fell. The shock paralyzed his feet for a moment, and his body moved without them. He regained his balance ungracefully, and it was a moment before he and Birka caught up with the stream of people again. He glanced around. Though people had certainly not missed his near-spill, no one was within easy earshot over the steady hum of conversation.
Ressa was across the room, he discovered with unpleasant timing, and had witnessed his clumsiness. There may have been concern on her face; she was looking in his direction, but the distance was too much to make out much expression.
He hadn't thought about her all night, with deliberate care, other than to distantly admire how she looked on the arm of another man and remind himself not to feel jealous.
But the jealousy was there, and Birka's plain speaking was quite right. He respected the woman who ran his life, valued her advice beyond any man's, and wanted her in his bed so badly that it didn't serve to think of it.
He had answered Birka only with silence, but had to admit she deserved better. "I would," he finally said. "But it is not my place." He didn't mean to sound as harsh as he did.
Birka was nodding in understanding. "As it is not my place to sleep with Jerumal."
That certainly explained a great deal about the stories lately from the staff, and the very formal stiffness that Jerumal had been displaying.
"You do not have such taboos within your culture?"
Birka was silent so long that Bai wondered if she'd understood, then said simply, "A man loving a woman is not a thing of politics."
The word she used for 'loving' was one that could be physical or spiritual, and was often applied to things unsanctioned. He wondered if it had the same connotation in her language.
"And for a woman loving a man?" he had to ask.
Birka looked into his face with surprise, and then smiled widely. "For a woman, all things are political."
# # #
The study was dark, and Bai moved into it without lighting the lamp from a flame in the hallway. He preferred the dark after the brilliance of the party. "Dash it," he swore, and he wished he had cultivated more of a vocabulary for swearing. "Curse it," he tried, then, "Dammit," and it was still painfully inadequate.
She haunted him. He could smell her perfume in his room, and see the stunning figure she was behind closed eyelids.
If Birka hadn't said anything, perhaps he could have ignored it forever, but the words seemed to have the power to pull what had been buried fantasy into being.
If Birka hadn't said anything... Bai stopped and pulled a book from the shelves by feel. He still would have felt as he did, as if nothing in the world was more alive than she was, as if he were never more alive than when he was with her. Birka's words had done nothing but make him stop denying it to himself.
The feel of the book was a comfort: the weight of it, the texture of the leather binding. It didn't matter that there was no light to read by just holding it brought some sense of reality back to the evening. It was a frail sense, at that. These months had been a rush of all that was surreal. Deadly, invisible enemies that ripped the fabric of time itself. A lost society of kinsmen who saw the unseeable and rode giant furred unicorns. Falling in love with the woman who ordered his life.
Only the book felt real.
He moved to his desk, faintly outlined in the moonlight through the window, but before he could sit, her voice stopped him.
"Don't sit on me, Bai. It would be much harder to bring you tea in the morning if my legs are crushed."
Bai froze. She was sitting in his chair, no more than a shadow in the deep wings.
"You didn't light the lamp," she said softly.
"Neither did you," he countered. He clung to the book, waiting for it to make him feel real again.
"It seemed like a night for darkness," Ressa said softly. "After all the light of the party."
There was a silence, an unreal silence, that might have lasted an hour or a moment for all that time had meaning anymore.
"What were you swearing about?" Ressa finally asked.
"You." Bai didn't have the time or clarity of mind to find another answer.
She stirred in the chair. "What about me?" she asked. There was no hint of her motivation in her voice.
There was no room in that place, at that fragile time, to tell her falsehoods or hide the truth in the darkness. "I want you," he said baldly. "I want you in all the ways I shouldn't. I know I can't have you, and you needn't fear that I'll act badly. You asked, but you probably didn't want to know." He stumbled after words. "I won't say anything again..."
Unexpectedly, she stood, and Bai knew that he had offended her. She was proper, for all of her colored past. She would not find this a minor slight.
"I asked because I wanted to know," she said. Her voice was low, honey-sweet through the darkness, and Bai was relieved to find no chill in it. They could go on as they had, Counselor and assistant.
Then her hand was on his shoulder, and it was not the touch of a mother or a sister.
"This isn't something we should do," she said agreeably, moving closer to him.
Bai tried to reconcile her words to her proximity, and couldn't.
"Bai," she breathed, and her breath was on his hair, she was so close. "Didn't you know how I wanted you, too?"
Her waist was at his hand; somehow he had reached for her. "You are the most beautiful woman I've ever known," he told her helplessly.
Snow-unicorns, Notherners, Others... none of them were as surreal as having Ressa in his arms. And none of them mattered in the slightest when she kissed him.
A man loving a woman is not a thing for politics, Birka had said in her plain way.
"It was my promise of a statue, wasn't it," Bai said when he drew back for breath. It was strange to kiss a woman who was taller than he was; her hair fell around his face in an oddly comfortable way. "You couldn't resist the idea of a golden statue of yourself..."
Ressa laughed, her warm, unexpected laugh. "I promise that it wasn't," she said. Her fingers traced Bai's face, and the touch was like fire... something out of a torrid romance book or bad play. "But now that you mention it..."
"A dozen," Bai promised at once. "All gold." He sobered. "I can't..."
Ressa kissed him again, and it felt like a desperate kiss, but it might have been Bai desperately wanting it.
"You can add it to my contract, if that makes it right," she begged him when she released him from the kiss. "I want you... I need you..." She sucked in a breath. "I love you."
It was her vulnerable voice, the voice that was so rare for Ressa, and so appealing. Bai had no defense against it, and he kissed her until he was dizzy and they were clinging to each other. "Dash it," he said harshly. "I think I love you, too."