While Octavian made his security check of their assigned cabin on the palace corvette, Sun settled into a seat and opened a virtual three-dimensional model of Molossia System. She spun the solar system, watching its six planets rotate on their axes and revolve around their star, positions shifting relative to each other.

Five of the planets anchored a beacon. Each beacon was tethered to its planet, caught like a far-flung moon at the farthest limit of the planet’s gravity well. A control node attached to the outermost rim of the beacon’s spiral coil monitored departures and arrivals. The coils of the still-working beacons had a faint and rhythmically pulsing phosphorus glow rather like a pulse. It was a weirdly soothing but also unsettling sight.

She pushed the view farther out to focus on the triple heart of the republic. The systems of Chaonia, Molossia, and Thesprotis were all scylla systems, each having five beacons although not all were still operable. Most importantly, the three systems all connected to each other, a rare, rich network called a Tinker-Evers-Chance convergence. This interconnectedness had made Chaonia, Molossia, and Thesprotis into natural allies, especially in the long interregnum after the collapse of the Apsaras Convergence. A tendency to trade and ally with each other in the troubled aftermath had caused their once disparate cultures to meld. Eventually, under the first queen-marshal, the systems united as the Republic of Chaonia.

When Octavian sat down opposite he studied the three-dimensional map, then opened it farther to show all of the territory under the governance of the republic.

“What do you see, Princess?” he asked. She wondered if the words were a deliberate echo of her mother and how he could even have known what the queen-marshal had said.

“I see history.” She traced a path with her right forefinger. “I see Chaonia, Molossia, and Thesprotis, the three core systems of our republic. I see the outlying territories brought in system by system by Queen-Marshal Inanna’s successors. I see how Great-Great-Grandfather Yǔ kept the peace during the period Chaonia was a vassal of the Phene Empire. How Great-Grandmother Metis managed to retain control of Troia System after the Phene withdrew.”

“Why did the Phene withdraw?”

“Is this a test?”

“You’re impatient. I understand that. You have a hundred reasons why you should be racing out to the battlefront instead of following the queen-marshal’s orders.”

“I’ve earned a chance to be given a command on the front lines!”

“We obey the queen-marshal, Princess. That’s my duty, and that’s your duty. One day, if you pass the test that is your training for rulership, you’ll be the queen-marshal whose orders people obey. But that day is not today. Now, why did the Phene withdraw?”

It was always a test, wasn’t it? She squared her shoulders, moistened dry lips, and proceeded with her usual dispatch.

“The Phene had to withdraw after the Yele League defeated an Phene imperial fleet at Eel Gulf. The Phene retreat left the Yele League as the big boss in our local area. So I also see how my great-aunt and grandfather and uncles fought constantly to maintain our independence from Yele encroachments. I see how the Yele contracted secret alliances with the Hesjan to make trouble for us. An unexpected Hesjan counterattack is how my uncle Nézhā died in battle at Kanesh.”

“And then?”

“When the queen-marshalate passed from him to my mother, she decided to pursue a more assertive strategy.”

“What strategy is that?”

“Offense, instead of defense. She defeated the Hesjan cartels and forced the Yele League to capitulate at the negotiating table. She increased ship and weapons production throughout the republic. Now she is using our control of Troia to push out via Kanesh and its beacon access into the Hatti region. That way our forces will eventually encircle Karnos.”

She used two fingers and a thumb to open up Karnos System enough to see its twelve planets with their orbital ellipses traced in bold lines.

“Karnos has seven beacons, a wealth of resources, and a large military-age population. With the victory at Na Iri, we now control access to three routes into Karnos. Since two of the other beacons lead to the Gap, that leaves only two more functional ones. Both of them are paths into the heart of the Phene Empire. If we take Karnos—”

She broke off, then said, “When we take Karnos, we will control passage into the empire rather than the Phene controlling our right-of-way.”

He nodded. “Correct. The military that controls the beacon routes will always have an advantage.”

“Except the advantage the Phene have that no one else has.”

“That’s beyond our reach for now.”

She pressed her lips together, eyes narrowing. Surely nothing was beyond reach, not for the one willing to risk all and accept no limits.

The pilots’ chatter from the cockpit drifted over internal comms as the corvette moved into the traffic lanes. Departing COSY, the fleet’s name for Naval Command Orbital Station Yǎnshī, was a slow and reluctant process. The incoming damaged ships needed to disperse to the naval shipyards elsewhere in Molossia System. Everyone had to navigate past a field of massive cargo containers slowly being attached to the Remora freighters that would convey them through the beacon to Troia. From Troia the supplies would be distributed onward via Kanesh to the garrisons and task forces in Maras Shantiya, Kaska, Tarsa, Hatti, and now Na Iri too. Na Iri was her victory. Or at least, partly hers.

Octavian pulled the visual down to center on Na Iri System with its twin stars. “We’ve got a thirty-hour transit to Molossia Prime. Let’s go back over the battle. See what you did right and what you could have done differently, and what was just the hand of fortune giving you a good set of tiles.”

“The queen-marshal would say she laid down those tiles. That without the strength of her hand, none of us would have won at all.”

“You can still lose with a good hand if you don’t play well. But it is true Eirene has built Chaonia to a position of strength after we were bogged down for years fighting in Kanesh.”

“You won your medals at Kanesh.”

His wry smile bore the weight of memory. “Everyone my age and older fought at Kanesh at one point or another. The dead deserve medals more than I do.”

Victory at Na Iri made her feel she had crossed a river and could now ask personal questions previously denied her according to the complex proscriptions of palace courtesy. “What was my uncle Nézhā like? You knew him.”

“I was a marine assigned to the flagship, which isn’t the same as knowing a queen-marshal as his Companions would. But still, he spoke to us all with respect and concern, as we expected. He was a good commander who attacked in the right direction at the wrong time. So. Shall we go over the Na Iri battle?”

She laughed. “You never stop.”

His answering grin revealed a dimple that gave the graying soldier a mischievous air. “Just doing my job, Princess.”

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