Sun was dozing in one of the recessed bunks abroad the palace corvette when the warning bell chimed.
“Set beacon stations. Transition in ten minutes.”
She rolled out of her rack and up to her feet. Octavian looked up from where he was cleaning two guns commonly called stingers. He stayed where he was while she remained standing, opening a virtual porthole. The famous marble-blue glamour of Molossia’s fourth planet shone in the distance, but it was the spiral coils of its beacon that drew her eye. Some people claimed they could see shadow and light moving deep within the coils. Some said a little piece of your human soul was torn out of you each time you passed through a beacon, and that this growing congestion of fragments of spirit was why the partial system collapse eight hundred years ago had happened. Beacon engineers knew how to keep the surviving beacons running, but no one fully understood how they worked, or why some had failed while others had survived.
“Five minutes. Take all weigh off the ship.”
Octavian was already strapped in, but he did pin down the disassembled gun parts with a mesh slung over the tabletop. She hooked her feet through a stability rail.
The gravity cut. Her unbound hair rose off her shoulders.
The transition bell rang. The ship rolled once, and everything vanished.
No sight. No sound. No breath of circulated air on her face. No shadow or light. Only a void empty of sense and existence like a presage of death and defeat.
Then they dropped out of the beacon and, engines firing, slid into Chaonia System above Chaonia Prime. She was home. Victorious but not satisfied.
She pinged her Companions to let them know she was arriving. It took hours longer for the corvette to descend and land in the military airfield on the shoreline of the capital city. Once there, she and Octavian took a Hummingbird out to the palace complex in the bay. A ping from her father dropped in as she was flying, but she ignored the message rather than give the controls to Octavian. The bodyguard kept an eye on her technique but did not interfere as she landed the ‘bird on the restricted airstrip that served the residential wing with its multiple nested gardens and courtyards.
The Honorable James Samtarras was waiting for her on a stone bench in the shade of a portico overlooking the landing pad. As the rotors wound down and Sun and Octavian disembarked carrying their duffels, he pulled his flatcap off his head and waved it enthusiastically.
“All hail the conquering hero! Alika is writing you a song.”
Sun swatted him on the shoulder in greeting, then indicated the complicated three-dimensional virtual spreadsheet he was building up from the half of the bench he wasn’t sitting on. “What are you doing?”
“As soon as we got the news Hetty told me to make a list of the various installations, factories, council halls, and workers’ guilds we’re likely to tour on Molossia and Thesprotis.” He closed a hand into a fist, and the interlocking web of lines and points vanished. “What is up with that anyway, Sun? It sounds dreadful. Did you lose your temper with your mother?”
“I did not lose my temper, James.”
“A little touchy about that, are we?”
She added a dart of her own. “I saw your father and your brother.”
“That’s punishment enough! I’m so sorry you had to endure His Officiousness and His Pompousness.” He jumped up to offer Octavian an exaggerated mock salute. “Welcome home, Sergeant Major. You’ve done well to keep our scamp of an heir out of trouble, and alive.”
“I haven’t received your training report yet, Honored James,” said Octavian.
James gestured with his cap toward an open gate where an older woman with the weathered face and upright posture of a combat veteran had placed herself on guard. “You can’t fool me. Isis sends you my reports.”
“I did see them,” Octavian admitted, “and it looks to me as if you and I will be taking extra sessions in small-arms fire.”
“Why this torture?” James groaned with eyes cast to the heavens in supplication.
Sun started walking. “Let’s go.”
As they strode toward the gate a miniature pteranodon sailed into sight from over the tiled rooftops to land on Isis’s shoulder.
“Your Highness, welcome back.” Isis fell into step behind Sun and James as the pteranodon tucked in its wings and cheeped at the new arrivals. “Early reports suggest you did well at Na Iri.”
“I accomplished the task I was given.”
With the queen-marshal out with the fleet Sun had expected to find a bare-bones staff at the palace compound, like the single pair of guards on duty at the landing pad. But where were the rest of her Companions? It wasn’t the lack of Alika and Perseus that fretted her. Why hadn’t Hetty been waiting for her at the landing pad alongside James? She refused to ask, and instead cast her thoughts back to the unexpected encounter with Moira Lee.
“James, I need you to do a deep dig into Lee House,” she said in a low voice.
“What do you mean?” He glanced up and down the long outdoor passage that led past half-deserted administrative offices to the residential wing. No wasps were allowed within the palace precincts. Since Sun’s private ring network allowed her and her Companions to communicate beneath a sophisticated cloak of white noise that was usually impossible for spybots and tracking devices to penetrate, he was checking for physical eavesdroppers.
“I want to know why Moira Lee was visiting my mother at COSY. Seeing her there raised a tickle down my spine. Something is going on.”
“I know that tickle. How many times did it get us into trouble when we were young?”
He swept a high flourish with his cap. “You’d say so.”
Isis remarked, “You’re still young, you sprouts.”
“Don’t argue with me, James,” Sun added.
“Why would I bother, since I’d never be allowed to win?” He tugged the cap on over his curls. “So what exactly are you looking for? Moira Lee was one of Eirene’s Companions in their youth. After her older sister Nona Lee died, Moira was appointed governor of Lee House and had to give up her place as Companion.”
“Actually,” said Octavian, who was walking in front but always listening, “Moira Lee had to give up her place as Companion before Nona Lee died. She was having a sexual affair with Queen-Marshal Nézhā. Favoritism of that kind between rulers and Companions is quite against court protocol, as Moira knew perfectly well. Nézhā’s consort found out about it and demanded Moira’s removal from Eirene’s household, as was within her rights.”
“The same Hesjan consort who betrayed Nézhā and was responsible for his death?” Sun asked.
“No one saw that coming, it’s true, and we could never prove it,” answered Octavian. “But get your events in the right order and you’ll have a better chance of figuring out if there’s something to the instinct that’s nagging at you.”
“Do you have any other insights, Octavian?”
“No, Princess. That was all common knowledge on the flagship back in the day. Anything more would have been above my rating.”
“Isis, how about you?”
“I’m just an average grunt who wasn’t near the court then,” said the much-decorated Isis, not that she wore her medals any more than Octavian ever did. “But we are approaching the sixth anniversary of the death of the eight-times-worthy hero Ereshkigal Lee. Maybe Lee House has plans to honor their daughter’s sacrifice with a procession and wants the queen-marshal’s imprimatur.”
“Maybe. James, start digging.”
“In case you forgot,” James retorted, “Lee House controls the Ministry of Security, Punishment, and Corrections. I don’t fancy them throwing me into their undersea oubliette if they uncover me sneaking into their secure data.”
“I keep you around because you’re better than everyone else at what you do. Am I not right about you after all?”
He grinned. “You’re always right, Sun. I am, in fact, the very best at what I do.”
And he was, which was exactly why she could not ask him to look into her father’s secret project. Her mother did not threaten lightly. Sun couldn’t take the chance James’s digging would alert Eirene’s intelligence trip wires.
They had skirted the entrance to the queen-marshal’s inner courtyard and entered the consorts’ wing through a side passage rather than its gilded front gate. Startled attendants ceased their dusting and sweeping to stand back with hands pressed respectfully together as Sun passed.
Because she was unmarried Sun still lived in the consorts’ wing. As heir she had her own secondary courtyard and suite of rooms for her Companions adjacent to the large courtyard suite reserved for Prince João. Its gate was guarded by twin statues of guardian lions. She relaxed as she crossed into her own territory at last.