Navah

In better humor she accompanied Hetty back to the courtyard where the others were seated, except Percy, who could never sit still. He was hanging from the gazebo roof’s rim doing pull-ups but dropped gracefully to the ground as Sun and Hetty came up. Duke, his middle-aged cee-cee, hurried out of the service alley drying his hands on a cloth. Sun invited him to take the cushion beside her rather than serve with Navah and Candace so he could fill her in on the details of his research. Duke had been an unemployed marine biologist whose family had gone into debt to pay for his advanced courses. He had only applied for Vogue Academy’s special course for “personal attendant” out of desperation when his clan’s home had come within days of being sold to clear the loan. His serious but equable disposition matched well with Percy’s impulsive, disorganized cheerfulness.

Thinking of the dismissive things Marduk and Moira Lee had said about Perseus annoyed her all over again. She sent the three cee-cees away and afterward cupped her hands around a bowl of tea. Her four Companions regarded her each with their own particular brand of patience or curiosity.

“You all know we’re headed for Thesprotis and Molossia for six long months. So we are going to learn everything we can and make all the alliances and create all the goodwill possible. We will be ambassadors for the palace, but also for this great mission our republic is engaged in—”

James gave a choked sound and pitched forward at the waist, barely avoiding smashing the last bean cake with his face. “It hurts. It hurts. Can’t you skip the deadly dull speeches with us?”

“I liked the sound of it,” said Percy brightly.

Alika picked up the baritone ukulele he’d made famous on Idol Faire and tried out “This great mission our republic is engaged in” with several different melodies.

Hetty smiled, and when Hetty smiled, the universe smiled.

James popped back up, snatched up the last bean cake, and stuck it in his mouth. “So good.”

Sun glanced toward the doors that led into kitchen area. No one was in sight. Through a half-recessed door to the right she could see Octavian and Isis seated in comfortable chairs with sake, talking over security and tutoring arrangements or perhaps reminiscing about shared campaigns from the ancient days of their youth.

She lowered her voice. “Percy, why would your aunt Moira be visiting the queen-marshal at COSY?”

He shrugged. “She wouldn’t. Governors never leave Chaonia Prime when the queen-marshal is on campaign.”

“Nevertheless, she was there. Was there ever any talk in Lee House about her scandalous affair with Queen-Marshal Nézhā?”

“Queen-Marshal Nézhā?” Cheerful Percy drained away into a frowning, uncomfortable visage. He picked up his teabowl but set it down without drinking. “I never heard anything about that. But I was only eleven when they sent me to you. Afterward I rarely saw them once they realized I wasn’t going to fill their ears with details of your habits and secrets. They stopped talking to me. It’s not that they value loyalty. They require it.”

“But Moira had to give up being one of my mother’s original and most trusted Companions because of the affair, didn’t she?”

“Do we have to talk about this?”

“Yes, we do.”

He sighed, shoulders slumping. Hetty cocked a critical eyebrow toward Sun. James shook his head disapprovingly. Alika plucked a single discordant chord. They all protected Percy, each in their own way, but Sun had never underestimated Perseus Lee, not as most people did.

“My gut is telling me this is important. I have to figure out why.”

“Whenever my mother wanted to needle Aunt Moira, she brought up how Moira had disgraced the family by getting banished from the Companions. She never said why, at least not in my hearing. I guess they both knew perfectly well. It was just the nasty way it always unfolded, like she was trying to goad Moira into slapping her so then she could cry about being slapped.”

James winced. Hetty settled a restful hand on Percy’s forearm. Alika watched in his usual silence.

“After your aunt Nona Lee died, and Lee House had to replace her as governor, is it possible Eirene was involved in having Moira named as Nona’s successor?”

“Ha!” His laugh was like scorched earth. “As if Lee House would ever let any outsider poke grubby hands into its inner workings. Not even the queen-marshal.”

“But Aisa Lee is the second child, isn’t that right? Wouldn’t it be expected that she would become governor after Nona?”

“Yes, but she was passed over in favor of Moira, who’s youngest. Let me tell you that even after nine years I can still quote entire ranting speeches by my mother complaining about the Lee House council snubbing her unfairly.”

“Wow,” said James. “I’ve met Aisa Lee at court functions with your father, who’s as handsome as he is scary. But she just seemed a little possessive and self-centered.”

“You have no idea what a monster she is, and I hope you never find out. Do we have to keep talking about this, Sun?”

“Yes. Your mother’s resentment doesn’t explain why Moira was chosen as governor in place of her. There’s something here I need to know, but I don’t know what it is.”

He ran a hand over his close-cropped black hair. “There was something funny about how Aunt Nona died.”

James perked up abruptly. “Nona Lee torched a refugee camp in a retaliatory action that killed thousands of innocent people.”

“That’s not how she died!” Sun blinked on her net and did a quick search. “She died in a conflagration in Troia System after Phene sympathizers attacked one of our military bases. It’s true a lot of refugees died in the neighboring camp. Collateral damage. But Nona Lee gave her life to salvage the situation.”

“That’s the Channel Idol story, the official story,” said James. “That Phene operatives bombed the camp and Nona Lee died nobly during the rescue operations. Scuttlebutt whispers it was Nona Lee’s operation from the get-go. It’s said she accused the camp of being a front for Phene operatives and torched it on the principle of one guilty, all guilty.”

“There are always conspiracy theories floating around deep in the twitch.”

“I’ll ping you the squib I found. I dug it up fifteen minutes ago while I was admiring the medusas. And I’m just getting started. For example, it’s not clear if Nona Lee’s body was actually found. If not, then whose remains took her place at her funeral?”

“Did you hear any rumors of that when you were little, Percy?” Sun asked.

Percy set both hands palm down on the tabletop, expression drawn and eyes weary. “You know why I don’t talk about my family. Because they are awful. And as awful as my mother and Aunt Moira are, Nona was rumored to be the awfullest of all. The whisper even inside Lee House was that after she died they had to fill in one wing of the underground prison with concrete to hide her illegal experiments.”

Sun exchanged a glance with James, and he nodded, fingers twitching as he started another dive. Percy kept talking, gaze fixed on his hands.

“The greatest fortune I ever received was when the House council picked me over my twin to come to you.” He looked up at Sun, dark eyes brimming with unshed tears. “And you kept me on. I’m so grateful.”

“They can’t all have been awful,” said Sun, turning over his comments in her mind. “What about the eight-times-worthy hero Ereshkigal Lee?”

Alika played the bravura opening run of his now-famous Aspera Drift, a musical tribute to the desperate battle fought almost six years ago at the edge of Aspera System, one quick beacon hop out from Troia.

“The adults are all awful, I mean. Not my cousins and siblings. They were still too young. My mother tried so hard to make Ereshkigal into a nasty little version of herself, but she couldn’t ruin her because Resh was the best.” Percy’s smile ghosted back, tenuous and sad. “Resh used to drag us around, Perse and me and our cousin Manea—”

“Purse?”

“Persephone. My twin sister. We were like the hooligan gang with Resh the ringleader.”

“The eight-times-worthy Ereshkigal Lee was a hooligan?” James asked with a skeptical grimace.

Percy laughed. “You have no idea, and I pinkie swore not to tell. Well, Perse made me swear and threatened to bite off my right pinkie finger if I told.”

“Bold! I like that!” said James.

Alika shook his head.

Hetty patted Percy’s forearm with a sympathetic smile. The splay of her fingers against skin drew Sun’s attention for a moment too long.

“It’s weird, though,” Percy went on in a musing tone. “Perse vanished after Resh’s death. My mother told me Perse had a nervous breakdown, but that doesn’t sound like her. She was always the bossy, conniving one. I missed her for so long.”

“I remember,” said Sun. “You cried every day for the first year you were here. It’s the reason I didn’t send you back like I did with the tedious rats the other Houses tried to foist on me.”

His wry smile held regret, not self-pity. “Then I got accustomed to not having to deal with my mother and let it go. Sun, why does this matter to you so much?”

“I didn’t like the way Moira Lee treated my father.”

“What can Lee House do to him—or to you, for that matter? Sure, you’re half-Gatoi, and most of the Gatoi fight for the Phene, but the prince has always kept his side of the alliance with the queen-marshal. Anyway you’re Eirene’s heir. That gives your father a lot of clout. And a lot of protection.”

Sun considered the table and its lack of bean cakes and deep-fried sesame balls, since they had eaten them all. As she pinged the kitchen for more, the door into Octavian’s office slid fully open, and he and Isis walked out.

“Princess, the manifest of casualties has finally come in. You requested to be informed right away.”

She jumped up. “I want to be involved in the funeral rites before we leave.”

The others rose too, moving away, all but Perseus.

Sun studied his preoccupied expression, so different from his usual way of being present in each moment. “Percy, are you okay?”

“I can’t ever forget I left Perse stuck in a pit of venomous centipedes.”

“It wasn’t your fault. Or your choice.”

“I know. But what worries me is they kept her back, instead of me. They thought she was the one they could turn into them. It makes me sick to think of what she could be like now, stuck in their trap. Still, I guess it’s out of my hands.”

With an effort he took in a breath. The desperate, damaged boy who had come to her nine years ago was shucked away into the restively cheerful young man of twenty who could make almost anyone smile.

“We are going to have so much fun on this tour, Sun. I already have lots and lots of ideas to entertain our various hosts. It will be smooth sailing and an unending barrel of laughs.”

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