The International Assembly audience hall was half-empty—too empty, Suyana might have said, in her first year there, when she was still surprised by the distance between good public relations and good politics. Now, looking across so many empty seats just made her heavy to the bones.
“Georgia,” the proctor called. “Germany. Ghana. Gibraltar.”
Missed opportunity, Suyana thought, every time the proctor’s eyes fell on an empty chair. An open vote was one of the rare times Faces pretended at politics. You were voting the way you were told, but even pretending was something, and she couldn’t imagine giving it up.
The rest of your life was photo shoots and PSAs and school visits, and saying what your handler told you to say, and going to parties where you tried desperately to look like you belonged amid a sea of other Faces who were higher on the guest list than you were.
Suyana put up with the rest of it because three or four times a year, she got to raise her hand and be counted. And today was a vote, and only half were here.
Some—the ones who ranked above her on guest lists—didn’t bother. Some feared what would happen if they did the wrong thing in front of the Big Nine, and their handlers had advised them to steer clear.
Her stomach twisted.
“They might as well just decide without us and inform us how we voted by mail,” she muttered.
Magnus said without looking over, “Try to sound professional, please, on the incredibly slim chance a reporter has a camera on you.”
No chance. The United Amazonian Rainforest Confederation had only been interesting three years ago, when the outpost got blown to pieces. Cameras had watched her for six weeks, until some other story broke.
That was before Magnus had been installed; she suspected he’d have worked harder to keep her in the public eye.
She pulled the day’s agenda into her lap, and picked the corners of the page off one at a time, where no one could see.
Magnus glanced over, said nothing.
In the sea of middle-aged handlers always conferring just out of camera range, Magnus looked more like a Face—tall, slender, fair, with a sharp expression—and she suspected he’d washed out from IA training, once upon a time. Just as well—he cast glances at the Big Nine as if he couldn’t wait to cut himself free of her. Diplomats couldn’t be so nakedly ambitious.
Little pieces of paper came off in her hands.
She couldn’t blame him; sometimes people had different loyalties than they were supposed to.
Smooth it over, she reminded herself. Keep an even keel. Don’t let anyone catch you out. Some things you can’t afford.
“I’m just nervous,” she said, softly.
It was true, but it was also what Magnus wanted to hear from her. Sure enough, he looked over.
“Understandable,” he said, high praise from him. “I have the rental.”
The rental was a necklace that was supposed to make her look fashionable, prosperous, alluring. Suyana thought it was useless, since her owning a bib of semiprecious stones would seem either openly false or a monstrous luxury depending on how much you knew about UARC economics, but Magnus had set his mind on it, and she wasn’t going to let it matter.
“Not sure it will do much. In Closer last year, he said he liked natural beauties.”
Magnus raised an eyebrow. “How cosmopolitan.”
“Iceland,” the proctor called. “India.”
“I don’t like the non-compete clause,” Magnus said. “Six months is restrictive. They’re hoping to leverage the re-up option in case the public likes you.” From his tone of voice, that wasn’t likely.
“Exclusivity ends the day the contract ends. They have the physical clause; you can’t enforce a non-compete on that. If he doesn’t want me to go elsewhere, he can make his offer alongside everyone else.”
He frowned. Three years on, he still got surprised whenever she slipped and got honest. (Most of the time Suyana wanted to strangle him. She measured her success as a diplomat by how little he caught on.)
“Japan,” the proctor called, and at the Big Nine table, far down the chamber ahead of her, the Face from Japan raised his hand.
“Suyana,” Magnus said, as careful as with any stranger he was trying to persuade. “We’re not in a place to dictate changes. We’re lucky they’re interested. After what happened—”
“I remember what happened.”
There was a little silence.
She missed Hakan, a knife of grief sliding between her ribs. She held her breath, like it could bring him back from the dead. Smooth expression, she thought. Show nothing. Be nothing.
“Norway,” the proctor called, with no answer.
Only six of the Big Nine had deigned to appear. Grace, the best of the lot, was without her handler—she always looked more eligible sitting alone. Grace was number two on Intrigue magazine’s Most Eligible Faces list for the fourth year in a row.
Suyana had already planned an attack of nerves so she’d miss Grace’s party. She was wary of open invitations; felt too much like charity sometimes.
Norway’s seats were empty. They were voting on some potential additions to the IA’s Human Rights Declaration, but apparently Martine didn’t think that was something that needed her attention.
(“You should go talk to her,” Magnus said once at an afternoon reception, and Suyana said, “Yes, nothing raises your social stock like being ignored by your betters.”)
Ethan Chambers, the American Face, had sent one of his assistants as a proxy; the Big Nine had enough staff to have them in two places at once.
At least there she knew the reason why.
Ethan Chambers was sitting in a boutique hotel a few miles away, waiting to meet her and sign the contract for a six-month public relationship. There would also be discussion of the terms of the physical clause; they were rare enough that they required careful debate, which meant everyone was preparing for several awkward hours. Still, you did what you had to, to get someone’s attention—the physical clause was the reason the United States had taken her offer seriously.
Suyana suspected the American team thought that if Ethan got her in bed, she’d get emotionally involved, and be easier to pressure with PR fallout whenever they wanted the UARC to fall in line.
Everyone could dream, she supposed.
“New Zealand,” the proctor called, and a few rows in front of her, Kipa raised her hand for each count of the amendments. Each time, it was steady and sure, and Kipa locked her elbow as if to make sure her vote was counted. Suyana tried not to smile. Her turn was coming soon enough, and she didn’t want to know what she looked like when she was pretending she made a difference.
After she’d exercised her duties, there would be lunch with Ethan. After lunch, they’d start mapping out the first place they’d be caught together “accidentally.”
“United Amazonian Rainforest Confederation,” the proctor called.
Suyana smiled for the cameras, raised her hand to be counted.