A small janitor

The rooms were quiet, reflecting her recent absence. Dust motes swirled in streams of light angling through windows. A small janitor scrubbed the passage’s marble floor with a cheerful whir. It was traditional for the queen-marshal to employ human attendants for mundane tasks like cleaning, to display her wealth and her generosity. Sun had early on replaced the people assigned to her area with mechanicals that James made sure couldn’t spy on her. Except for Octavian and her Companion’s companions—cee-cees who like Isis combined the services of bodyguard, valet, and attendant—there was only a trusted cook, two factotums, a high secretary, and a clerk to round out her personal household.

As they broke out of shadow into the daylight gleam of the private courtyard, a crescendo of exuberant melody greeted her. Alika was standing in his favorite spot beneath the red gazebo. He didn’t look up from his guitar because music was how he most comfortably communicated. The clack and shush of bladed fans opening and closing in time to the song’s ecstatic rhythm traced Candace’s martial practice around the gazebo. Isis and Octavian watched with approving nods. The cee-cee whirled to a halt, snapping the fans closed and hooking them on her belt in one smooth motion as Alika brought the piece to a close. He flashed a smile toward Sun.

“Perfect,” she said.

“Your training scores have remained excellent, as expected, Honored Alika,” said Octavian.

“Shoot me now,” muttered James.

“And yours too, Candace,” added Octavian.

“Your Highness.” Candace bowed. “Sergeant Major. Welcome home.”

Sun greeted the cee-cee with the appropriate words of reply but was already searching the courtyard’s alcoves and shade-drenched benches for Hetty. Before she could ask, the sound of hurried footsteps brought her head around. The Honorable Perseus Lee barreled out of the service alley carrying a covered bowl.

“Sun! I was going to go with James to meet you, but it just happened.” He jolted to a halt in front of her and with one of his radiant smiles tipped back the lid. “Look!”

Sun stared into the bowl’s water, which bore a strange undulating quality but was apparently empty. “What am I looking at?”

“Medusas. Duke finally got them to reproduce in the lab.”

Now she saw tiny translucent bell-shaped domes and dangling tentacles as sporadically visible fine lines washing back and forth in the water. Her eyes opened wide as she took it in. “Everyone told him it couldn’t be done.”

He slid the cover back on.

“Oi! I want to see,” objected James.

Perseus started walking toward the alley. “I’d better take them back. I probably shouldn’t have disturbed them, but I wanted to show you right away. I’m sure it’s a good omen. They’re said to be immortal.”

James looked at Sun. She waved a hand, giving permission, and he raced off.

“Percy! Wait up.”

The door to the kitchen area slid aside. Navah, Hetty’s cee-cee, came out with a tray laden with a teapot, cups, and an artfully arranged platter of sweet bean cakes and deep-fried sesame balls, still warm. The pleasant aroma chased through the air.

“Your Highness! Welcome home! Cook has baked your favorite sweets.”

Navah placed the tray on the table under the gazebo and began setting out the cups with her usual brisk efficiency and charming smile. Alika had started playing again, plucking out bits and pieces of melody as he did when composing. Candace gave Sun a skittish glance before going over to help Navah.

Sun frowned as it became clear Hetty wasn’t here to greet her.

In a low voice, Isis said, “Your Highness, it’s the anniversary of her father’s death. She’s at the shrine.”

“Of course,” Sun muttered, swept by a dark wave of shame. “I should have remembered.”

“Hard to reckon time in any one system when you’re traveling by beacon,” said Isis kindly. “Octavian, I have a few things to discuss with you now you’re returned. Shall we go to the office?”

Sun left her duffel in the courtyard for the factotums to deal with. After changing into slippers on the entry porch, she walked through the empty audience hall to the private reception room. Its balcony overlooked the palace’s Memory Garden of the Celestial Empire. The pleasing arrangement of stone pavements and promontories, waterfalls and still pools, and flowering trees and scented bushes usually soothed her restless soul. Today she barely glanced toward the bright peonies and azaleas. Instead, she cautiously approached a small side room, off the balcony, which was set aside for the household shrine. Because Companions officially left behind their birth households to become part of hers, the shrine had a raw, fresh aesthetic unlike the well-worn traditional altars of long-established houses.

The Honorable Hestia Hope knelt on a pillow in front of an elaborately carved open cabinet arranged with a lamp, flowers, stones, and images of the deceased. Her long black hair was braided back in a casual fishtail adorned with a white ribbon to signify her mourning. Her posture was exact, hands pressed palm to palm and head bent just enough that her fingertips brushed her forehead. A pulse beat softly in her pale throat as she took in breaths after each long stream of prayer.

Standing in the entry, Sun let the flow of the beloved voice spill over her. By the slight lift of her chin and faintest blush on her cheek, Hetty had become aware of Sun’s presence. But of course, being Hetty, she finished the full cycle of prayers at the prescribed tempo before she bent in a final bow toward her father’s image. Only then did she rise in a rush of movement to face the princess.

“You’re home, my dearest Sun. You have come home.” Hetty’s smile was a flower in full bloom.

Sun took a step toward her and grasped her hands tightly in her own. Only then, as if shocked awake by Hetty’s cool skin, did she remember to glance over her shoulder. The shrine was in full view of the reception room and balcony, so she released her. Words failed her, as they often did when this stark, vulnerable emotion clamped her in its jaws.

“I know you’re furious at the queen’s command,” Hetty said with her usual instinct for pushing straight to the heart of things, “but think, dear Sun, how well it benefits you.”

“How does a six-month glad-handing tour of factories and training camps benefit me when I should be out on the front lines with the fleet?” She broke off. “Wait. I got a message from my father.”

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