Incredibly

Incredibly, her father was nodding so eagerly that he ignored Sun’s question. “You’ll see how valuable this is, Eirene.”

“It had better be. I’m staking a great deal of reputation on your gamble. Because there’s another serendipitous piece that came in with the battle report. An entire arrow of banner soldiers was unexpectedly captured intact and alive on an orbital station above Na Iri Terce.”

“I didn’t hear about that,” said Sun.

“How was that managed?” João asked eagerly, ignoring her.

“They got trapped in an inert engine well and were gassed into unconsciousness. They’re still in stasis while the high command decides what to do with them. I’ll have them officially declared dead on arrival and delivered to you instead.”

He laughed, rocketing from combative suspicion to ecstatic glamour so quickly it took Sun’s breath away and set her off balance. She hated being off balance. “An entire arrow! Lady Chaos smiles on us. And with more to come.”

“There won’t be many, João. You know they’re cursedly hard to capture alive.”

“Where are you going, Father?” Sun twined her fingers together as uneasiness washed through her. She wasn’t dependent on him while navigating the shoals of court, of course not, but she was used to having him at her back at all times.

“Your mother will explain.” Grasping Sun’s arm, he kissed her on each cheek, squeezed the hand on which she wore the ring he’d given her, and released her.

The main hatch opened. Eirene followed him to the threshold and, after a moment nailing a stare to his back, shouted angrily into the antechamber in his wake for all waiting in the outer chamber to see and hear. “And don’t come back until you’ve learned not to flout security and my authority!”

The hatch hissed shut. Eirene turned to face her daughter.

“Sit down, Sun.”

To remain standing in protest at this high-handed treatment would only provoke Eirene. Sun grabbed a chair set off to one side and guided it to the big oval network platform that doubled as a meeting table.

Stay focused on what lies ahead.

“I see you’ve learned some self-control,” remarked Eirene as Sun sat.

“What is this project?”

“Stop asking. I won’t tell you. And don’t try to cajole your father. I’ll instantly withdraw the funding if he tells you or you make any effort to dig out information on your own.”

“Why am I not allowed to know? I’m your heir. Haven’t I proven myself worthy? Isn’t it time for me to be given more responsibilities? Assigned to an active duty station on a ship like the Boukephalas?”

Eirene leaned on the edge of the platform. The pinprick red light in her eye winked a reflection back at itself from the platform’s glossy surface. “You followed my battle plan well enough to push the Phene garrison fleet out of Na Iri System. My plan. That’s not the same as being ready for independent action.”

“Then what is it ready for?” Sun asked in the evenest tone she could muster as her hands closed into fists.

Eirene looked up. In the domed space above, virtual stars shone. The view zoomed out from the star systems that made up the republic to become a wider perspective.

“Tell me what you see,” said the queen-marshal.

Without the beacon network, built long ago by the now-vanished Apsaras Convergence, each star system would be an isolated island of humanity separated by months or years of travel. Sun traced the routes between worlds and alliances—the Republic of Chaonia, the Yele League and various small independencies hanging on its skirts, the Phene Empire, the wealthy city-states of Karnos and their Hatti cousins long under the thumb of the Phene, the fractious Hesjan cartels and shifting Skuda factions, sacred Mishirru and its outlying dependencies, the isolated Ring of Ravenna, and the terminus frontiers. These routes had seamlessly knit together all inhabited systems until an unexpected and shocking collapse had destroyed every beacon in the central region of the network, leaving in its wake what was now called the Apsaras Gap, a vast, beaconless expanse at the heart of inhabited space. At that time, eight hundred years ago, tendrils of destruction like cracks had splintered out along the outer network to randomly rupture individual beacons, which meant some routes were left more or less intact while others had broken links. The now cut-off star systems weren’t wholly lost. They could still be reached by the venerable Argosies, powered by knnu drives and still in motion throughout the region even though their passage times were so much slower than beacon travel. Meanwhile, between the stars, the nomadic Gatoi fleets ran dark and cold, also powered by knnu drives and thus difficult to trace by anyone not born on one of the eleven clan wheelships, as Sun had not been.

“You recite names, and histories, as any citizen can do,” said Eirene. “But what do you see?”

“After the collapse of the central routes, Chaonia’s three main systems were left in the most direct path between the Phene Empire and the Yele League. Although they weren’t yet an empire and a league, back in those days. They grew in power because the changes in the beacon system benefited them more than others.”

“We have lived at their mercy for generations,” Eirene said, warming to her favorite subject. “Everything the queens-marshal before me have done is to secure Chaonia’s independence. This task is our chief duty, the reason for our existence. Our territories have been fought over and annexed by outsiders for long enough.”

Sun broke in to forestall a lecture whose content she could quote in her sleep. “Once the Yele League was bound by the treaty you forced on them, you turned your attention to our border with the Phene.”

“It was the next necessary step.” Where Eirene directed her artificial eye a red laser traced the path of her campaign. “My grandmother retained Troia System when the Phene had to retreat and regroup after their attempts to invade the Yele League failed. Why did she expend so many resources to hold on to Troia?”

Sun managed not to roll her eyes at the question. She’d learned this lesson when she was seven, but it was exactly like her mother to keep treating her as a child.

“Because Troia System is a bottleneck. A gateway that can be reasonably well guarded by a strong network of orbital stations and a garrison fleet. Anyone trying to enter Chaonia from the Hatti region or from Karnos has to go through Troia.”

“Yes. Its defensive value is critical to Chaonia’s security. It’s also a perfect springboard for our fleets. By moving outward into the Hatti region via the Kanesh route we are encircling Karnos one system and one beacon route at a time.”

“If we didn’t hesitate and instead pushed straight from Troia through our foothold in Aspera System direct to Karnos itself, then—”

“You’re always getting ahead of yourself. That’s my point. Do you appreciate how long it took Chaonia to get its neck out of the yoke imposed on it when it was annexed by the Phene Empire? How often our ancestors had to bite their tongues when the Yele called us weaklings and collaborators because we didn’t have enough strength to evict the Phene when they first occupied us? How many times our people had to accede to the demands of the Yele League when they began strutting around crowing about how they alone had ever defeated a Phene fleet, and against such odds? Their endless speeches! How the Yele love the sound of their own voices! And let us never forget how my father and brothers died one after the next in battle against Hesjan raiders and their Yele instigators. Leaving me young and untried to continue the fight.”

“You’ve told me the story more than once.”

“Yes, so I have. I’ll continue to tell it until you hear me. You’ve grown up with what I’ve built. You’ve never had to slog through the mud, not as I did. I’ve got those cursed arrogant Yele under control, for now. Meanwhile the Phene are a behemoth whose heads are only slowly waking to the prod of our tiny spears upon its ass end. With the defeat at Na Iri they’ll not slumber any longer, nor blame their setbacks on the incompetence of their regional bosses. They’ll come for us, mark my words.”

“How far do you mean to go against the Phene?”

“If we take Karnos, we will control a permanent barrier to their aggression.”

“If?”

Eirene barked out a curt laugh. “Does when suit you better? Karnos is massively protected because of its valuable placement and superb resources. We need those resources to refill our empty treasury. But its seven beacons make it hard to hold without an overwhelming military presence. That means in order to take Karnos we must first rebuild and refit all our damaged ships while also producing more hulls for the campaign. Production, repair, and inventory must double. Triple! The demands on our citizenry will be extraordinary. Campaigns are won and lost on supply. So your next assignment is to tour the industrial parks and the Fleet and Guard training camps on Molossia and Thesprotis—”

“What?” Sun jumped to her feet. “What? You’re sending me on a show tour, to be trotted out for local banquets and inspect raw recruits?”

“Sit down!”

Sun gripped the edge of the platform.

“If you don’t sit down, then I’ll know you are unfit for further responsibilities.”

Shaking, Sun sat hard, bumping the chair to one side.

“That’s better. Your contribution to the victory at Na Iri burnishes you. Right now, we build. You will do your part, exactly as I command you to do. Do you understand?”

Keep your temper in check.

“I understand.”

Eirene snapped her fingers. The virtual display of stars, and lineages, vanished.

“You’re dismissed. There’s a palace corvette waiting to take you to Chaonia Prime. Once there, you’ll gather your Companions and leave for Thesprotis. Imagine how delighted all your hosts will be when the Handsome Alika arrives in town. Zàofù will provide you with the itinerary. It’s already been arranged.”

As the last word dropped, Eirene blinked on her personal net and turned her attention to a different task. Sun tried to rise but a weight had shocked her legs into immobility. She’d done well; she knew she had. Yet it wasn’t enough for her mother. Maybe nothing would ever be enough.

As a hatch opened and two Companions strolled in laughing at a joke known only to them, Eirene caught Sun with the laser edge of her gaze.

“Why are you still here? Go.”

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