Once the pod sealed and began to race through the interlocking strands of the orbital station, the senior Gatoi soldier relaxed enough to greet Sun.
“Well met, Your Highness.”
Sun acknowledged the other five banner soldiers as well, all known to her from her father’s household. She’d spent many an evening playing mah-jongg with them in her father’s pavilion, but this wasn’t the place or time for less formal interactions.
Octavian offered Colonel Evans a respectful salutation in recognition of their complementary roles, but the two did not converse. Like every marine who had fought in the border wars he did not trust the Gatoi, not then, not now, not ever. Why should he, when 90 percent of Gatoi banner soldiers fought as auxiliaries for the Phene Empire? Yet he had agreed thirteen years ago to become bodyguard to a seven-year-old princess born of an unexpected union between the young and ambitious queen-marshal of embattled Chaonia and a strong-willed prince of the Gatoi who had broken away from his own Conclave of Royals to make a daring alliance.
Was it lust or an exceptional sense of strategy that had driven Eirene’s decision to take a second and decidedly controversial consort at a time, twenty-two years ago, when the republic was beleaguered by aggressive Phene raids and arrogant Yele demands? Sun’s musings on this perennial question kept her focused until the pod clicked into the airlock on the command node’s outer ring.
An intercom chimed, followed by curt words. “Place all weapons on the floor immediately.”
Sun tensed, fingers brushing the stinger holstered at her hip. “That can’t be for us.”
“Standard security protocol, Princess,” said Octavian with a tip of the head toward the Gatoi. He calmly unclipped his rifle and set it at his feet aligned so he could grab it quickly.
Prince João looked superficially serene, but by the flicker of his eyes Sun knew he was annoyed. Nevertheless, he gave a languid, downward gesture with his right hand. The six banner soldiers promptly lay facedown on the floor, hands on the backs of their heads. The pose of abject surrender shocked her, but she waited to see what would happen next because she knew her father curated every least interaction.
The pod’s door slid open to reveal a line of marines tucked behind guard emplacements in an armored entryway. A middle-aged man with the typical stocky build of a person who has grown up on Chaonia Prime strode forward to halt at the threshold. He did not wear a military uniform, although he moved with the authority of a high-ranking officer. A sunburst badge pinned over his heart identified him as one of the queen-marshal’s Companions, born to one of the seven Core Houses and thus equals of Eirene. He acknowledged Sun’s presence with a nod rather than a salute.
“Marduk Lee.” Sun offered a slight bow, exactly the proper deference in respect of his status as her elder.
“You’re still wearing a weapon.”
“I am. I’m the heir.”
“So you are. Speaking of which, how is my cheerful young cousin Percy? Aren’t your Companions with you?” His smirk was a sting. “Not a single one?”
“I believe you know the queen-marshal assigned me to duty on the Boukephalas without my Companions,” she replied with creditable calm, brushing off a barb meant to remind her that she could not control the movements of her own household. She took a step toward the threshold but, as he did not stand aside to let her pass, was forced to stop.
“I was summoned by my mother.”
“So you were.” He took a step to one side. The instant she crossed the threshold he stepped back to block the opening, leaving her in the entryway and her bodyguard, her father, and his escort in the pod.
“They are with me,” she said.
His gaze examined each of the prone Gatoi before returning to her. “Clearance to disembark has been suspended.”
“That’s unacceptable!” She broke off when Octavian caught her eye and gave a minute shake of the head.
Her father ought not to have brought his people this far in, given that most Chaonians saw Gatoi as a hated enemy. Yet this was exactly the sort of provocation João reveled in. Sun resented him placing her in this fraught position almost as much as she was insulted by Marduk Lee’s power play, which could not go unanswered.
Before she could decide on a course of action, the far hatch in the entryway cycled open. A large domed chamber lay beyond, an open space used for planning strategy and logistics. Several people moved amid a three-dimensional augmented-reality projection of the battle at Na Iri and its glowing pattern of shifting ship positions. The replay had just reached the point where the enemy line stretched so far it began to lose cohesion. Through the door Sun watched a visual of her attack group with Boukephalas in the lead thrusting like a spearhead into the resulting gap. The maneuver had allowed them to surround the enemy’s flagship and its escorts while the center and right flank of the Chaonian fleet had driven the remainder of the enemy ships into an ignoble retreat. It was well done, effective and decisive.
The replay froze, accompanied by a splash of lighthearted banter. A woman walked out of the domed chamber into the entryway as the hatch closed behind her. Sun straightened, shoulders tight, then eased off with a hiss of expelled air. It wasn’t the queen come to greet her triumphant daughter. It was Moira Lee, Marduk’s cousin.
Marduk Lee glanced back. “Here you are, Moira. I have a pod waiting for you, as requested.”
A prick of instinct sparked in Sun’s chest, a sense of a threat hovering just out of sight. Moira Lee was a former Companion to Eirene and now governor and thus senior clan member of the powerful Lee House. So why was she here at a military post instead of back on Chaonia Prime overseeing the crucial ministerial operations for which Lee House was responsible?
Moira and two adjutants wearing Lee House’s emerald tree badge made their way around the emplacements. She stopped short when she saw Sun. “Princess Sun. I thought you were on the Boukephalas.”
“I was. Now I’m here.”
Moira Lee’s lips pinched together as she sorted it out. “I see. You must have come on the fast courier with the initial report. I hear congratulations are in order. You did well.”
Moira dipped her head in acknowledgment, and her tone changed to something smoother and icier. “And dear Percy? How is my nephew?”
“I haven’t seen him for two months since my Companions were not allowed to accompany me to Na Iri, but his messages are exactly what you would expect.”
A harsh smile brushed across Moira’s smugly perfect mouth. “Percy always entertains, does he not? Not a deep thinker, our Percy.”
“I cherish his good nature.”
“That’s one way of putting it. I’ll see you at the palace soon enough, I am sure.”
“Am I not to be given active duty?” Sun asked as a fresh and sharper thorn of disquiet stung in her heart.
“It wasn’t a topic Eirene and I discussed.” Moira turned to the pod’s threshold. Seeing the Gatoi, she took a step back with a fierce grimace of disgust. “How have these … creatures … been allowed this close to the command node?”
Marduk gestured toward Prince João.
Moira wrinkled up her nose as at a bad smell. “I should have known. Is this exaggerated display of subservience really necessary, Your Highness?”
The prince had remained seated all this time, an arm draped casually along the back of the bench. “We were told to place all weapons on the floor. Each and every banner soldier is a weapon beyond compare, deadlier than any inorganic stock. But of course with Marduk’s go-ahead I will give my people permission to stand.”
“No need,” said Moira before Marduk could answer. “Gatoi should never have clearance to enter the command node. Return to the concourse at once.”
João uncrossed his legs and braced both boots on the ground. “Have you forgotten I am father of Eirene’s only viable heir?”
“Since you never let anyone forget it, how could we?” said Moira Lee with a cold smile. “Marduk, I need a clean, sanitized pod right away.”
The insult was so brazen Sun could not let it pass. She struck with a frontal assault. “Governor Lee, isn’t it true that certain clandestine activities in your past required you to give up your place as Companion to my mother? A place your cousin Marduk then took?”
Moira was too canny and experienced to do more than give Sun a flat look meant to express boredom. “What’s your point, Princess Sun?”
“That you’re governor of Lee House now, not Companion to the queen-marshal. So you don’t have any say about who enters and who leaves her presence.” She addressed the man. “Marduk Lee, Prince João accompanies me. My bodyguard, Octavian, will remain behind with the Gatoi cohort, since you’re uncertain your own guards are up to the task of managing them.”
“A palpable hit,” said Marduk with a chuckle, although Sun wasn’t sure if it was the reminder of his cousin Moira’s old disgrace or the challenge with respect to his marines that amused him.
Her father rose with his usual prowling grace and blew a mocking kiss to Moira as he walked past her.
Once the pod door closed and the pod detached, the private, secure, untraceable network Sun shared with her bodyguard and Companions pinged open with a message from Octavian: KEEP YOUR TEMPER IN CHECK. STAY FOCUSED ON WHAT LIES AHEAD, AS WE DISCUSSED.
A second pod plugged in and opened. Moira Lee and her adjutants embarked without looking back. It was a relief to have them and their sneers gone.
“Fabulous boots,” said Marduk Lee to the prince, still looking delighted by the way the encounter had fallen out. “Aren’t they a copy of the famous artifacts on display at the Celestial Shrine on Yele Prime? I studied those artifacts when I did a university year there. I’m sad to say your copy isn’t fully accurate.”
“I used more authentic source material from the inner sanctum that isn’t displayed to the general public,” Prince João replied with a bland smile.
The other man cracked a laugh. “That’s right. You and Eirene first met in the Temple of Furious Heaven. Quite the coincidence.”
A powerful voice broke over them like a sudden storm. “Sun! Why are you dawdling out here? I told you to come at once.”
The hatch into the far chamber had opened while Marduk and João dueled. The queen-marshal stood at the threshold with the dome a vast space behind her. Her body was haloed by a gleaming three-dimensional reconstruction of the many solar systems that made up the Republic of Chaonia, making her seem larger than life, a figure burnished through great deeds and illuminated with a cunning and ruthless vision.
And by the look on Eirene’s face, she was mightily annoyed.