Chapter Four: Grey

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Damn, I loved sparkling wine.

"Not bad, eh?" Tomus said, topping me off. He'd swiped an entire bottle from a waiter and drank directly from it as soon as he filled my glass to the brim.

"A man could get used to this," I replied, grinning.

"Another year, Astor." Tomus nudged my shoulder.

I clinked my glass against his bottle. "Just one more."

We were so close to graduating that I could taste it. Tomus and I held the highest grades at Yūgen, and we were both advised by Master Ostrum. Ostrum was a bear, but he was also the best medical alchemist on Lunar Island or anywhere else in the Empire. Having Ostrum as a master made getting into a top position at the Governor's Hospital, or even a hospital in one of the larger cities on the mainland, a sure bet.

"Well, off we go," Tomus said, his voice only slightly slurring. He dropped the bottle on a tray held by a passing waiter, then turned to me, tapping his nose. "We'll get a bit of brown on here, and it'll be a night well done."

"You don't have to be so crass about it," I muttered, but I still followed him as he strode toward a group of medical alchemists in the back of the ballroom.

Outside of the hospital, alchemists didn't bother with their deep blue robes, but many still wore the color on their persons: a blue cravat, a lace-edged pocket square, a sapphire brooch.

"She's a good choice," one of the men was saying as Tomus and I edged closer.

"Mm." His companion nodded. "Surprised the youngling chose her."

My eyes darted to the raised dais at the end of the room. Emperor Auguste was young—younger than me even, albeit only by a few months. Tomus and I were still students, and the Emperor was already leading the largest naval fleet in history—and leading it well. Every day, it seemed like new lands were being acquired into our sprawling empire.

Emperor Auguste lounged on his throne as if it were covered in cushions, not gilded ebony hand-carved by the first settlers of Lunar Island a century and a half ago. In contrast, the middle-aged woman to his left sat with her back ramrod straight, her eyes alight, gazing out at the crowd in the ballroom with genuine interest. As I watched her, she leaned over and said something to the Emperor, who shrugged, then she got up and stepped off the dais, intermingling with the crowd while Emperor Auguste snapped his fingers at a waiter for another glass of wine.

"Adelaide is the right choice for Lunar Island," the first alchemist said, as if trying to convince himself.

Tomus sidled up to the group. "We agree," he interrupted, even though I knew he didn't really care who was governor. He just wanted an excuse to break into the conversation. The alchemists glared at us, seemingly surprised we were there.

"I'm glad to see children are interested in today's politics," the second alchemist said, a mocking smirk on his lips.

Tomus stuck out his hand. "Tomus Abertallin," he said. "Top of my class at Yūgen."

The smirk faded.

I swallowed and stepped closer. "I'm Greggori Astor," I said. "And despite what Tomus says, I'm actually ranked highest."

The man chuckled. "Astor? You Linden's boy?"

I nodded but didn't elaborate. Father wanted me in politics, like he was. According to him, medicinal alchemy was a trade, not a profession. Mother didn't care what I did, as long as I married well. I resisted the urge to turn around and look for them. They were both here, somewhere. Father had probably slipped off to a parlor for cards and cigars, and Mother had probably had more to drink than Tomus, although she held it better. It was doubtful they'd seen each other since they arrived, and neither had bothered to check on me.

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