"My lord," said Paxos, "if you don't wish to expend your valuable time on these miserable little insects, you can send me in your stead. You know I will serve you to the utmost of my ability into eternity, even in this."

"No, no," sighed Kolex, waving a hand, "that's fine, Paxos, I don't think it would set the right tone for you to unveil the sign on the new elementary school, you can stay home."

"As you wish, my lord." Paxos bowed, very deep; he no longer wore the glistening armor he'd once put on every day, but he still kept his blond mane at shoulder length, still spent hours every morning keeping in perfect physical condition and sword-readiness. The very picture of the hero apart from the blank blue of his eyes, neither sclera nor pupil.

"Yes, yes. Go do -" Kolex paused; it was risky to tell Paxos to do "something". "Polish the armory display." Again.

"My lord," replied Paxos from the low point of his bow, and he backed out of the room to obey.

This sort of thing was why Kolex managed most of his personnel by text chat these days. When Paxos was gone, Kolex called a car to take him to the school. Paxos got a lot of practice polishing the things in the museum wing and there were probably only a couple of hours to be had before he was done.

Kolex pulled down the cloth that covered the sign for Twelve Poplars Elementary and folded it up solemnly while the small audience politely clapped. Camera flashes went off, and the children's choir standing on the steps leading up to the school entrance began to warble. Kolex applauded when they were done and then followed the school board into the new building, where they pointed out to him the alchemy lab and the computer room and the home economics kitchen and the library. It seemed like a nice school. Suitable for turning out little well-rounded future doctors and wizards and chefs.

He excused himself rather than accept an inaugural meal at the school cafeteria; surely they'd had enough photo ops for the local papers by now. The chauffeur was waiting around the block for him. Kolex walked it rather than call for the car to turn the corner, since it was a nice day.

"You're harder to recognize without the crown," said a familiar woman's voice.

Kolex looked over his shoulder. "Nkati," he said wearily.

"Going incognito?" she asked.

"I'm wearing a ceremonial cape and a few pounds of jewelry, you tell me," Kolex replied flatly. "The crown's in the museum these days. It gave me a headache. What do you want, Nkati?"

"Paxos," she said. Predictable. It was always what she wanted. "I want Paxos back."

"Well, I'd invite you to stuff him in a sack and cart him home with you but I'm pretty sure if the Prince of Kolxa's retainer slays half of the court of the Elect of Risingsun on his way out, we have a diplomatic incident," said Kolex. "I hate diplomatic incidents."

"I have a new thing to try," Nkati pressed. "My alchemists cooked it up."

"Oh, well, in that case, right this way," said Kolex, rolling his eyes, "come on over, we'll dump him in a vat of whatever you brought and see if it puts him right." This would also cause a diplomatic incident, since Paxos was technically king of Safrandica, ruled in trust for him by a parliament that had gotten pretty used to being in charge, but Kolex would take it.

Nkati made an irritated noise but followed Kolex to the car and got in. The driver was not paid to ask questions. The ride was silent.

She started talking again when they disembarked at the palace side entrance. "I can never decide if it's adding insult to injury that you don't even appreciate him or if that would be worse."

"Well, personally I think it would be worse, or I might do it," said Kolex. "Plus imagine if someone thought it was neat and decided to dig up the ritual. They, too, could have a very awkward next few centuries of realizing that the rest of eternity continues to be just as long."

"I hate you," said Nkati.

"I have lost the zest for life that gave me energy to spare on hating you," Kolex replied. "He should still be in the armory, do you remember where that is?"

"I am not going to approach him without you right there to call him off if he decides that this time the best way to serve you is to try to decapitate me," snapped Nkati.

"Fine, fine." Kolex accompanied her to the armory, where Paxos was scrubbing the plaque that explained the historical significance of the guillotine in the diorama behind it. There was less call for the armory to be arranged for defensive readiness, these days, so it now doubled as a museum, and the curator was forever after Kolex to come up with something else for Paxos to do, since constant polishing wasn't actually good for the exhibits.

"My lord," said Paxos, when Kolex and Nkati came in. "Verminous foe," he added to Nkati, narrowing his blue, blue eyes.

"Paxos," said Nkati.

"She's my guest, Paxos," sighed Kolex.

"My lord," repeated Paxos, still squinting venomously at Nkati but making no aggressive moves.

"Was that," Nkati said, gesturing at Paxos, looking disgustedly at Kolex, "really necessary?"

"What specifically?" Kolex said, rolling his eyes as he beckoned Paxos to follow them to the alchemy workroom where Nkati would presumably want to make her attempt. "I could have gone with 'your imperial majesty', it'd be charmingly anachronistic by now, but in that, if nothing else, I showed foresight."

"The 'verminous foe', part," said Nkati. "You could have had him thinking of me as tragically misguided, one inspirational speech away from defecting and joining him in commanding your undead legions."

"Honestly, I don't remember," Kolex said. He pushed the door open at the end of the hall, preceded the others down the stairs. "I didn't program him, you know, it's possible he just picked it up from my subconscious or something."

"If you'd programmed him maybe you'd be able to reprogram him."

"And I would have done it after, oh, thirty years, tops, and then everyone would have assumed he was a sleeper agent and he'd be assassinated by his own parliament the next time he backed an unpopular reform." Kolex shook his head. "What are you looking for, an apology? I've apologized. I can't fix him."

"Well," Nkati muttered as they reached the alchemy lab, "hopefully this can."

She'd brought the reagents with her, and only needed a few minutes and a borrowed beaker to assemble them into the active potion while Kolex and Paxos waited.

"My lord?" Paxos inquired in a low voice, while Nkati stirred.

"What is it?"

"May I ask the purpose of this brewing?"

"- same thing Nkati's always darkening my door for. Putting you back to normal. How you were. So you can go - home, and do whatever it is you'd like to be doing besides hanging around me all the time."

Paxos inclined his head and didn't ask any followup questions.

Nkati tested the clear, hissing potion with a strip of reactive paper, checked it against a color index, pronounced it correct. "Tell him to let me administer it," she told Kolex. "Otherwise I wouldn't be surprised if he dashed it to the floor and then I'd have to make another trip."

"Take it," repeated Kolex, tiredly closing his eyes. "Let her give you the potion, go on vacation with Nkati or something, go back to Safrandica."

"As my lord wills," Paxos murmured, and he sat down, leaned back, stared at the ceiling while Nkati took an eyedropper full of the stuff and put three drops in each eye. Their color went from robin's egg blue to a soft gold, like his hair - still no pupil, but Nkati looked satisfied, even overjoyed. She embraced him, and his arms went around her.

It was quiet, without Paxos around. Usually he wasn't terribly obtrustive - a few exchanges of words per day were enough to have him spending his hours diligently performing drills in the gym, or polishing things, or commanding the undead legions to cut the grass. But they were noticeable in their absence.

Kolex loved it.

He'd been such an idiot, locking himself into something so shortsighted without even considering the next thousand years as anything more than a rhetorical device. He didn't remember what he'd been thinking - Paxos was a useful servant, during wartime, but not that much better than the generals he'd recruited by normal means. Maybe he'd been counting on it damaging the opposition's morale. Which it had done; perhaps otherwise he'd have been completely defeated, instead of settling for the borders of what was now modern Kolxa and relaxing into a peace with the neighbors that wore smooth like seaglass over time. But probably it would have been nearly as good to bind Paxos for some specific number of centuries, or to the service of Kolxa rather than Kolex himself so he could be pushed off into a civil service position, or -

Well. Too late to go back and change his mind now. Hopefully Paxos was settling back in to the political process in Safrandica with a minimum of fuss.

Paxos had been gone for three weeks.

Kolex got the notification that Safrandica had declared war about four hours before Paxos reappeared at his side to drop to one knee.

Kolex lifted his face from his hands long enough to look at Paxos's eyes, gazing up at him. They were a bilious green, threaded through with blue at the edges and a pinpoint of gold remaining at the center of each.

"What have you done," Kolex said into his palms.

"I did as you asked, my lord," said Paxos. "I am ready to resume command of the legion, to finish the -"

"No," Kolex snapped. "I - you -"

"My lord?"

"What about Nkati, did you do anything to her?"

"I behaved as she seemed to expect, until she left me in the heart of Safrandica to proceed with the next step of your plan."

"I did not have a plan."

"As you say, my lord," said Paxos, puzzled.

"Go and - stand guard in the observation tower," Kolex said, "come straight to me and tell me if you see any invading forces, I - have to - do other things."

"At once, my lord," replied Paxos, and he sprang to his feet and headed for the stairwell.

Kolex tapped out a few more texts to his minister of defense, and then, faced with the prospect of having to write something up for Risingsun and Nkati, instead delegated it so he could lock himself in his chambers and meditate on the length of eternity.