Eirene was a robust woman with the typical stocky Chaonian build and a black prosthetic in her right eye. A tiara of optical fiber laced around her short hair tied her into the military network. She wore the red-and-gold uniform appropriate to Chaonia’s current Charlie state of threatcon, and a glower to match.
“What is João doing here?” She turned her incendiary glare on Marduk Lee.
Marduk shrugged, untroubled by her anger. “You’re the one who gave him clearance to move through all areas up to fifth-level security. Don’t look at me, Eirene. Look to how you favor your consorts.”
“Come inside,” she snapped.
Sun and João accompanied her into the chamber.
“Out,” she said to the three officers and two Companions in the chamber.
After they cleared out and all the hatches shut, Eirene crossed her arms and examined her second consort with a hard stare given an ominous shine by the laser embedded in her obsidian eye.
“Why are you here, João?”
“As your consort—”
“None of that. Answer the question.”
João smiled in the challenging way he used only on Eirene, leaving Sun to feel personally trapped between two rival sovereignties.
“I am here with my daughter, your heir, after her exceptional performance at the battle of Na Iri.”
“I meant here, at the command node. You could have waited on the concourse or in my suite. You know your being admitted inside the node’s security for everyone to see puts me in a compromised position. People already say I give you too much rope.”
“To hang myself with?”
Eirene smiled sharply. “So they hope. I don’t need your provocations right now with the border situation finally looking good for us. People believe you are a foreign agent who I am too weak-kneed to resist.”
“I can’t help what people think. What matters is you know I am not. Which reminds me—”
“Did you come here on the wings of Chaonia’s most recent victory thinking to use my good mood to entice me into agreeing to your cursed project?”
“It’s a great gamble that will benefit all involved if it succeeds. You know it is.”
Sun took a step forward. “What project are you two talking about?”
“Quiet.” Eirene’s raised hand cut off Sun’s question. She didn’t even look at her daughter because she only ever had eyes for him if they were in any room together. “It’s too expensive. Too risky. Too much of a long shot. If word gets out, the criticism will fall fast and hard and could destroy us both.”
“Oh, come, Eirene. After everything you’ve done for Chaonia? You survived and thrived after the deaths of your father and brothers in swift succession left Chaonia desperate and vulnerable. You forced the Yele League to the negotiating table and beat them at their own game. You have freed most of the Hatti region from the yoke of the Phene Empire. No one can take your triumphs from you. No one would dare. Your legacy and your position are assured.”
He gestured toward the command node’s ancestral shrine. Every mission control node and public administrative center in the republic displayed the venerable lineage of the queens-marshal of the Republic of Chaonia. The first queen-marshal, Inanna, had chosen the eight-pointed star as the badge of her authority and passed the device on to her descendants. Her lineage was arranged on a virtual wall as a visually appealing ancestral tree whose queens-marshal were given a doubled and thus sixteen-pointed sunburst halo and whose branch lines had been carefully pruned away so as to be conveniently forgotten.
Eirene’s three consorts had been given the courtesy of glowing portraits to remind people of the current queen-marshal’s adeptness in crafting political alliances through marriage. The first consort, the inscrutable Lady Sirena of the Alabaster Argosy, who had left Chaonia with her two-year-old son three months after Sun’s birth; the second, Prince João, with Sun; and the third, Baron Aloysius Voy of the Yele League, whom Eirene had married four years ago as part of a treaty that sealed the end of hostilities between the Yele League and the Republic of Chaonia.
“Still no child with Baron Voy, Eirene? What are you waiting for?” João’s ambiguous smile flickered in remarkable contrast to the welcoming grin seen on the image of the gregarious Baron Voy.
“Spare me your false concern. It’s bad enough you’ve given me a half-Gatoi daughter. Chaonians will never stand for a half-Yele child becoming queen-marshal.”
“The long history of relations between Yele and Chaonia is certainly contentious.” His smile sharpened to add mockery to the words.
“The Yele are arrogant pricks and always have been. But they bark at my command now.”
He chuckled. “The Yele do hate you with such a particular venom, don’t they? How lowering for them to be forced into a peace of your making, they who consider themselves the exemplar of all that is best amid the vast reaches of human civilization.”
“Father, you don’t care about the Yele,” said Sun, trying to get a foot into the discussion.
“That’s right. I don’t care about the Yele. But I do care about my people and this project, which your mother should recognize could break Phene control over the banner soldiers once and for all.”
“The Phene have a long-standing alliance with the Gatoi banners and their Conclave of Royals,” Sun said. “I thought you two were trying to negotiate treaties with the separate banners to get them to come over to our side one by one.”
“It’s not that simple. More people need to ask themselves why banner soldiers who serve as auxiliaries for the Phene fight to the death even when they don’t need to.”
“Honor,” said Sun.
“Compulsion,” said her father. “Literal, physical, physiological compulsion. Engineered into them by the Phene.”
“João!” Eirene snapped. “It’s a wild theory, not a proven fact.”
“Wild it may be, but I’ll say it again and again, until you hear me, Eirene. My obligation and duty as a Royal of the Gatoi is to fight for the well-being of my people.”
“Which is exactly why Chaonians don’t trust you.”
“They ought to, because in this case what would benefit the brave and honorable Gatoi banner soldiers would also benefit Chaonia against the empire. As you know perfectly well.”
“What kind of compulsion?” Sun demanded.
“Silence,” said Eirene. “Let me think.”
Her father caught Sun’s eye and tapped two fingers to his lips with a scolding tuck of the head. She could not shake the sense she was merely a potentially useful tool in her parents’ personal tool kits, a piece held in reserve within the larger game they were playing. But she knew better than to protest when they were thus arrayed against her.
Eirene studied the images of her consorts’ faces with a meditative frown. Something was going on behind Eirene’s always-intense expression with its quirks: a pinch of the lips, a squint of her flesh eye, a glance at the deck as her right boot traced a straight line like the path of a thought. But Sun could not have guessed what it was, and the lack of any handle to grab on to irked her mightily.
“After all perhaps you are correct.” Eirene took a turn around the room, pacing off a burst of energy.
“I’m correct? In what way?”
“I’ve changed my mind. I’m giving your project the go-ahead.”
João eyed her suspiciously. “What brings on this abrupt change of heart?”
“The realization that if it’s true, and if you manage to do what you claim can be done, then the Conclave of Royals and the Gatoi clans will owe me.”
“How like you, Eirene. So be it. Whatever it takes.”
“It will have to be done in complete secrecy, totally off the grid. Do you understand?”
“I’ll need a venue.”
“I know of a venue that will work. I’ll release funds from my private treasury. And I’ll put out word that our raiders and operatives must send any captured Gatoi to my central authority immediately.”
“There’s a way to give cover to it, Eirene. You can say it’s a prisoner of war camp.”
“We’re not going to say anything because it’s going to be kept secret from everyone except you, me, and the people working there. My enemies in the court and the assembly will have a field day if they find out. To that end, you will disappear. I’ll put it about that I exiled you in anger. That way no one will question why you’re absent from court. You will vanish. You and your people will be allowed no net presence, no communication with the outside world.”
“Not even with me?” Sun demanded. “Am I not the heir? Am I not to be privy to this sort of information?”