encrypted message

She blinked three times to activate the private link and its encrypted message, sharing it with Hetty via her ring network. Her father never used voice only. He always appeared in hologram, a gauzy ghost of a figure wearing spectacularly rich garments. This time he wore a long sleeveless embroidered coat that, hanging open, revealed a knee-length fitted gold tunic over loose trousers. Hetty whistled appreciatively at the bold geometric patterns of the coat.

“Don’t share this message with another soul, not even the Sergeant Major.”

Hetty made a move to step away, but Sun grasped her elbow. “We are one soul with two bodies, are we not? You will always know all that I know.”

“I have to go under the highest restriction of security for this project. That’s Eirene’s ears only, in case you are wondering how restricted it is. Not even Lee House is in this loop. So you won’t hear from me for a while. This is the chance I’ve been waiting for, working for, all my life. We can break the hold of the Phene … I’ve said too much. Say nothing about what you heard. But be sure I’ll be keeping an eye on your activities. Sun, your stubbornness about your Companions needs to end. You must pick Companions from Jīn, Bō, and Nazir to fill out a full complement. You should replace the Hope girl, too, with a Companion from the governor’s line of Hope House instead of that disgraced Yele-tainted side branch.”

“Not a chance,” muttered Sun.

Hetty squeezed Sun’s hand.

“You cannot needlessly antagonize the seven Core Houses. You need the support of all their ministries to rule effectively as queen-marshal, or to rule at all, given people’s distrust of me. You should know better by now. I shouldn’t have to be blunt. This goodwill tour can become a useful expedition to break in new Companions. Here are my suggestions—”

With a grimace of irritation Sun blinked off the sound, although she recognized the shape of the names on his lips. “Alika, James, and Percy are the only ones I trust. Besides you and Octavian, I mean.”

“The prince—”

“Yes, I trust Father too, of course. I’m his most valuable resource. But I’m also a piece in whatever strange game he’s playing, which I’ll never fully understand because I’m only half-Gatoi and wasn’t born and raised on the wheelships as he was.”

Hetty’s smile had a laughing quality that always softened Sun, reminding her she could be wrong once a year. “I meant to say, the prince is right. Here’s why.”

She gently released Sun’s hand and walked into the reception room and out onto the balcony. Leaning on the railing, she waited for Sun to come up beside her. Sunlight gilded the central pool, flashing on the backs of bright koi. Wind chimes sang. Fan-shaped gingko leaves flashed in the breeze as flower petals spun down to float on the water.

“You need all seven Core Houses. You know that. You need each ministry’s support in full. Each of us Companions is your link that reassures each House you honor them.”

“I’m not replacing you no matter what my father says.”

“Hope House is well content that I am here. Prince João does not fully understand the politics inside each House or why Hope House would find it safer to stow me within the palace rather than their halls.”

“Of course. But the other three just want to put more spies in my household.”

As one, they glanced toward the open doors and the dim audience hall beyond. A rectangle of light marked the opening onto the courtyard where the other Companions and their cee-cees were, presumably, waiting for Sun and Hetty to return so they could enjoy a celebratory tea.

“James and I have done a little search,” remarked Hetty with a mysterious smile.

“Are you saying you have some honorables in mind? Ones the Houses haven’t already put forward? Or the ones I’ve already rejected?”

Hetty waggled her eyebrows.

Sun pressed a sudden kiss at the corner of Hetty’s tender mouth, which tasted sweetly, sharply, of ginger. “How did I ever manage those years you were away from me on Yele Prime?”

Hetty pulled away and beckoned toward the garden’s lovely expanse. It seemed uninhabited at the moment. But a stray gardener might be working behind a luxuriant shrub, or the personal attendants of the third consort could be taking an opportunity in the queen-marshal’s absence to stroll amid the flowers and pavilions. Still, she allowed her left little finger to touch Sun’s where their hands rested side by side on the railing.

“I’ve come back now and will not leave again.”

“I know.” Yet Sun shifted restlessly, rubbed her eyes, gave a sharp sigh.

“Dear Sun, you’re agitated. What is wrong?”

“Would it be too much for my mother to offer me a scrap of praise? Tell me I’ve done well? Say she’s proud of me?”

“That’s not her way. To give you jobs to do? That’s how she shows you that she thinks you’re fit. She’d not have sent you to the front if she thought you incapable of a command. She placed you in position to allow for you to lead the crowning blow yourself. That is your praise. What higher can there be?”

“Then why send me on this ridiculous tour when there are more battles I could be sent to fight?”

“Logistics win campaigns. This will help you. People will be grateful that you care enough to visit where they live and work. They’ll see you as they have not seen the queen for years except in news reports. You’ll come alive to them. They’ll take your part. And also you will learn while on the ground all the extent of our capacities. Our resource load, our freight, our training schemes. What we have in excess. What we lack. You’ll need this knowledge later, mark my words. And one last thing.”

“Campaigns are won and lost on supply,” Sun murmured.

“That’s right, and we have pushed both far and fast. Chaonia must rebuild—”

“—repair, and reinforce our lines. I know. I know.” Sun frowned. “It’s true we took a lot of damage at Na Iri. It’s true we’ve gotten stretched thin all through the Hatti reaches. Imagine what might happen if the Phene knew how vulnerable we are and decide to attack while we’re reeling from all our victories.”

Hetty nudged her shoulder to shoulder. “Let’s go have tea and speak of Duke’s medusas.”

“It’s quite a feat,” Sun agreed, accepting the change of subject.

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