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Neveshir spun, eyes feasting on a strong-jawed face with a wide nose and proud brow. Melík's smile was bright against the ochre skin of southwestern heritage, Alkayan-dark even in the winter. Coal-black hair curled short beneath a circlet of gold. The first sign of ash-grey dusted his temples — more now than he'd had a season ago.

Maker, it had been months. Three whole months. Mel's face always hovered in Neveshir's thoughts, yet seeing it anew punched the breath from his lungs.

The dropped biscuits made sense, now — a casualty of the quick scramble to get to one's knees. Neveshir, however, hadn't bowed to Mel in a lifetime. Not within his own territory, at least. He affected a casual lean against the countertop instead, slouching until they were of a height and hoping his heart wouldn't jump out of his throat to land beside the biscuits on the ground.

"Terrorizing?" he echoed. "And whose fault is that? Seems to me they have the return of the Shah to thank for their distraction."

Laugh lines deepened around Mel's dark eyes. "As if I could stay away from the promise of a—" He regarded the scattered tray. "Say, are those my favorite biscuits?"

"Oh no, no, no." Neveshir turned him away from the mess with a hand on the shoulder and prodded him out of the kitchen-proper. "You are not eating off the floor, not under my watch—" He broke off as the first teasing whip of Mel's smile appeared. "You are impossible."

He led them towards his office out of habit, but hesitated in the hall. Why was Mel here? Was this a visit from old-war-friend-Melík, or Melík-the-Shah-of-Esenia? Neveshir couldn't remember the last time he'd found Mel in the kitchens at a sane hour. He tended to appear past midnight when memories of the war wouldn't quit, wandering around like a nightshade and haunting the halls of his own palace.

Not all scars from war were physical, though they shared plenty of those, too.

As if hearing the unasked question, Mel cleared his throat. "I'm sorry to give you more work in place of a proper hello, but I wanted to tell you we'll have an extra guest at tonight's meal."

Neveshir arched a brow. Mel brought home plenty of bureaucrats who overstayed their welcomes, and always blamed him for keeping them in the city with his food. "A 'culinary diplomat'?"

"Not quite." Mel pulled up short just outside the archway to the office, face blank in a way that dropped heavy in Neveshir's stomach.

The last time he'd seen Mel so empty, they'd stood beside the pyre that committed the Shahbanu, his wife, back to the Maker. She'd been so young. Mel had sat in his kitchen through the night for weeks afterward, drinking in silence by the fire while Neveshir kept his hands busy for lack of knowing what to do.

Just as he had then, Neveshir hovered outside the doorway, waiting for a cue.

Mel rested against the creaky doorjamb. Though Neveshir stood half a head taller, he was skin and bones by comparison. The frame made no sound when he slouched against its opposite side.

"We ran into an old friend of mine out near the plains. Levent Zekí, did you know him? He was a Bashi by the end of the war."

A flush of unreasonable jealousy tickled down Neveshir's spine. He did know Zekí, but hadn't heard of his promotion to platoon commander. They'd met early in the war, just after his conscription, months before his assignment to Mel's unit. Zekí hadn't cared for him. The dislike was mutual — a common enough occurrence for Neveshir.

He also hadn't known Zekí and Mel were friends. His lips pressed thin. It wasn't his place to ask.

"We've met."

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