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“I’ve got something to tell you.”

Dalyne smiled up at the man who’d spoken those words as they strolled through Saris Municipal Park. They’d taken the afternoon to enjoy one of the last temperate days of the Lesser Quatra season before the cold settled in. Leaves were already falling in a slow ballet from the spring berry trees to land at their feet as they walked hand-in-hand down the promenade.

“That’s funny,” she said, chuckling softly and squeezing his hand, “I was just going to say the same thing.”

Brittan didn’t return her smile. In fact, he looked pained. His lids sagged heavy over his eyes and his mouth was fixed in an uncomfortable grimace. Uh-oh.

“Let’s go sit under the mosswood. Relax our feet for a bit.” He gave her hand a reciprocal squeeze – a bit late to be of any comfort – as he veered them off the stone-paved path to the tree.

The mosswood sat alone at the edge of an open grassy field on the left side of the promenade. It towered above the smaller spring berry trees that lined the walkway from its genesis in the city center to its termination on the northwestern boardwalk of Saris.

“Are you comfortable? The grass is still soft for the season.” Brittan rubbed his hand across the natural green carpeting.

“Yes, thank you. But I think it only has another half decarote at best. Mornings have been chilly.”

“Yeah, they have.”

They sat in silence, listening to the sounds of a pick-up game of Robber Fly in the field behind them. Their unspoken somethings hung heavy between them.

Dalyne turned her attention to the game while she waited for Brittan to speak. While she worked up the courage to speak herself. She caught flashes of the bright orange and green winged discus as it soared between the defending team’s members.

“That looks like fun. When’s the last time you played?” Brittan leaned over and picked a moss leaf from her hair. He was stalling.

She’d been excited to share her news just moments ago, but his uncharacteristic seriousness put her on guard. Now, she’d be happier to stay there all day under the mosswood with him, watching the game. Not saying the things that were going to change their lives. Change this moment.

“I’ve not played since I left Harrenton, and that was…,” she paused to tick off the quatras in her head, “almost three annum now.”

“Oh. Do your brother and sister still play?”

She shrugged. “On days off from the gemad mines, but not in tournaments. Just recreational.”

The triplets had made a great team at Harrenton secondary school tournaments. The “Triple Vector Threat” was largely responsible for a thirteen-quatra winning streak. She missed her siblings, but she didn’t miss Harrenton or the miner’s life. It was too dangerous. Too physical. She was better suited to her position as a gemad evaluator in the Dometian banking system.

“How about you? Have you played recently?”

“I was thinking about joining a local league when it warmed up again in the Verdant Quatra…” His voice weakened, leaving a trail of uncertainty dragging behind it. He cleared his throat and shifted himself on the grass to face her. Here it comes.

“Dalyne, you know the official results for the election haven’t been released yet.” He faltered and looked away from her.

She reached over to squeeze his hand again. “Of course. So how do you think your niece did? She was polling strongly over the last decarote, wasn’t she?” Dalyne kept her voice casual, despite the sense of unease that crept into the back of her mind. Like there was something she should be worried about, something she should realize but couldn’t quite see it.

A look of pained amusement swept across his face. “They’re supposed to make the official announcement this evening, in the 39th kila,” he said, pausing to swallow hard, “but, the candidates were informed of the results earlier this rota, under strict orders not to share the information.”

She chuckled again, though not with the same spirit she had earlier. “And who abides by instructions like that? Well, did Miterra win?”

“Yes.”

“Brittan, that’s wonderful! What great news for your family. Oh, your brother and sister-in-law must be thrilled.” The smile on her face was genuine as she jiggled his right hand in both of hers. She’d only met his family once so far, but her affection for Brittan extended to them just the same.

She sighed and relaxed her shoulders. So that was all he’d wanted to tell her. His niece won the coveted Empress elections, which meant her family would be investigated and dissected by the media. As the paramour of Miterra’s favorite uncle, Dalyne would be subject to their scrutiny, as well. But she was a private person. She abhorred such attention, and Brittan knew that. He’d want to prepare her for the media frenzy that would ensue by the 40th kila.

The sense of relief that rushed over Dalyne was short-lived.

“She’s asked me to serve as her Chief of the Royal Guard.”

Dalyne’s smile wilted, and she stopped shaking his hand. “What?”

“And I….I’ve accepted.”

He accepted. She turned those words over in her head, examining them, struggling to absorb their underlying meaning. He accepted the position of Chief of the Royal Guard. The Empress’s personal guards swore an oath of absolute fidelity and celibacy. No families. No relationships. No opportunities for divided loyalties. For that reason, a new Empress often selected the Royal Guards from her own family. And since the position of Empress was a lifetime appointment…

“Oh, I see.”

In retrospect, she realized she should have expected this. Brittan and Miterra were close, both single-born and only six annum apart in age. When they first began dating, Brittan entertained Dalyne with stories of his childhood on Verdant. How ‘perfect candidate Miterra’ often got in trouble as a child on the playgrounds of Prosperity Pass. How she expected her Uncle Brittan to come to her rescue. And how, he admitted, he always did. So it was natural for Miterra to want her champion to be there for her now that she’d won the Empressy.

“Dalyne, you know how much I love you.” He pulled his hand from hers and grabbed her by the shoulders, compelling her to look at him. “You’ve been a part of my life for over seven quatra now – almost two annum…”

“But she’s been a part of your life for twenty-five years. She’s your niece. And the new Empress.”

“I can’t refuse her this, Dalyne. I can’t,” he said.

The defensive tone in his voice rankled her. She responded with a harsh edge he didn’t deserve. “I would never ask nor expect you to, Brittan.”

“I don’t do this with an easy heart. You know that, don’t you? When Miterra asked me…” He sighed and released her shoulders. “It was at once one of the most exciting and the most gut-wrenching moments of my life.”

Dalyne sat, silent, watching a leaf twist and turn in the air next to Brittan on its journey to the ground.

“I wish I…I mean, I had thought to ask you in the Imperial Quatra, to marry –”

“Please stop.” She held her hands out in front of her. “It doesn’t make this any easier, for you to tell me what might have been when it can never be.” She peered at him, her eyes glassing over from the creeping realization that she couldn’t tell him her something. She could never tell him.

Right now, the choice, while not an easy one, was at least uncomplicated for him. This was Brittan’s chance to serve his niece, the Elected Empress – and by extension, the Dometian empire – with pride and distinction. He was a good man. A beautiful man, in her eyes. He deserved this opportunity, and she loved him enough to give it to him. So far as he knew, he’d need to say his goodbyes to her alone.

But if she were to tell him the words that moments ago had been on her tongue, she’d take that opportunity and twist it with regrets, uncertainty and eventually resentment.

“Hey!” The orange and green fly hit the back of Brittan’s head with a soft thunk and landed at his feet. He rubbed his crown as he picked up the fly and glared at the owners. Game flies weren’t heavy, but they were solid. A rogue fly could impart a nasty bruise if it picked up enough speed before impact.

“Sorry!” A young man from the offensive team called out as he waved his arm at them. The group seemed hesitant to retrieve their game fly, still shy of adult authority in the uncertainty of their youth.

Brittan hopped to his feet. “I’ll be right back.” He kissed her hand. The painful remnants of their conversation haunted his expression. This wasn’t the best moment for him to scamper off, but they each needed a moment to think. Or at least, she did.

She watched him jog over to the kids as she rubbed her still-flat stomach. The baby wouldn’t show until the middle of the Imperial Quatra. Enough time to put in for a transfer to her company’s office in Mardis. She could disappear into the booming port city and cut all further contact with him. It’s what needed to happen.

Brittan’s back was to her as he chatted with the kids about their game. She stood and started down the promenade, turning once to look at him. He turned at the same moment, and they locked eyes across the distance. He took a step toward her, a wretched expression spreading across his face. She shook her head at him. No, it’d be easier this way.

She kissed her palm and held it to her heart – the Dometian hand signal of enduring love – before continuing her retreat down the promenade and removing them both from his life.