Ember made no reply.
She stayed silent as they step-turned out along the final arm of the cross, and as they came back.
So too when they stopped in the center.
Did I say too much?
The spotlights shut off, leaving everything in darkness.
Ember let go of Ean’s hands and walked away, quickly disappearing through a door at one end of the ballroom.
Something in the set of her shoulders kept him from following, but he remembered what she had said about running away and looked for someone to send after her.
There, two flashes of white.
He crossed the floor with quick steps and latched onto Jin and Jo. They both pinned their ears back immediately.
“Ean!” Jo said.
“We’re very sorry about the cinch job on your waist,” Jin said.
“Hush. I don’t care. Follow Princess Rehkskarri at a distance. If she leaves the palace, one of you come tell me and the other stay with her.”
“We’re on serving duty!”
“We got in trouble.”
“If anyone complains, send them to me and keep after the Princess.”
Ean pointed at the door Ember had left by.
The twins slumped, then smiled at each other and ran after her.
Ean watched them go until they vanished, then wondered what he was going to do with the rest of the ball. He looked around at all the people now filtering onto the dance floor in pairs. Why did he feel…
“Shouldn’t you go after her yourself?” said a familiar feminine voice.
Maybe… no. As long as she wasn’t running away or crying alone again, no. I won’t intrude.
Ean turned to Tala. She was wearing a black and silver ensemble that went well with her short black hair.
“She might eat me.” He felt his stomach twist as he said it, and looked at the floor.
“I doubt that,” Tala said.
“It was a joke. A bad joke.”
Ean looked up. Tala was watching him, her hands clasped together in front of her, her stance off center and with enough tension that he could see it.
“Would you like to dance?” he said.
“I’d love to.”
She held out her hands and Ean lead her in the Southern Canter, a nine-step conversational dance that could take a couple clear around a room in a series of offset diamonds. Tala followed on light feet, keeping a comfortable distance and mostly studying his face.
After a few cycles of that Ean began to feel warm. He had thought Tala was mostly avoiding him too, but now…
“Is my face alright?”
“Your face is fine. You look very handsome. You’ve just seemed distracted lately. We’ve hardly seen you in the labs.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.” Maybe she’d just been working all the time while he was off running down translations.
“Don’t be. It’s just different.”
“I could use your attention on the Thunderbolt production drawings, though. Trant Arms has a pretty good idea of how they’re going to set things up, but the whole process could use streamlining. This week would be best.”
“Of course. I didn’t know they were moving so fast.”
How had he missed that?
“You didn’t get the order? Your father told all the munitions companies to move up their timetables by a few months on the new weapons.”
“I read it, it’s just… Right.” Kai, I have been dropping things, haven’t I? “I’ll stop by the planning office tomorrow. Is eight AM good?”
“Perfect. This isn’t your usual style, though. You’ve always been on top of everything.”
Yes. He had been.
“I’ve been doing research.”
“Your research doesn’t usually make you forget everything else. What kind of research is this?”
Ean glanced toward the door, then back to Tala.
“Ahh. The Princess. I won’t pry. But we could really use you back in the labs. All of you.”
She freed one hand for a moment and tapped him on the forehead without missing a step.
“Saving strangers isn’t the only important work you have to do.”
She said it with a smile. He smiled back.
“I’ll try to remember that.”
“Good,” she said. “Speaking of saving strangers, how is the Council coming? I hear you’re still working on getting a majority in support of citizenship?”
Ean missed a beat and had to push them through a double step on the next round to catch up. What was Tala after?
“They didn’t like finding out about her background.”
“She’s not a criminal. Well, as such.”
“No, just another Garagran. But the Empire’s interest has them nervous.”
Tala nodded. “Sensible. But we’ve known the Empire might notice us ever since it came up north. What does your father say? He could still put it through, couldn’t he?”
“He could, but the Isolation Party might put in their own block if he does.” He eyed her. Bright eyed, relaxed. Normal, inquisitive, Tala. “I thought you didn’t like Ember?”
“I got over it. Besides, she’s useful here, and no one should be left alone to be hunted like that.”
“Most of the opposition doesn’t see it that way, though. They just see the Empire, slavering around our borders.”
Tala pursed her lips.
“I could write up a report. That might move them.”
“Detailing everything she’s helped us with. Most of the Generals would probably be happy to put in a good word for her, too. Even Jobin, as long as it lets him continue with live exercises.”
“That’s a good idea.”
And it was.
“She really has been incredibly helpful. It should be easy to sell her to the council as an official military asset.”
“I agree.” Ember had even come up with that idea herself. It might even be enough to shift the isolation Party members themselves. If there leaders could recover from their public shaming.
“I could start pulling the reports from the engineers and scientists first thing,” Tala said. “If you messaged the generals tomorrow, you could probably have one letter from each of them by the end of the week. How does that sound?”
It sounded like a way to get things back to sane.