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The Precipitating Action of This Account Begins Here
The battered fleet returned to Molossia System without fanfare or announcement. Military personnel striding across the main concourse of Naval Command Orbital Station Yanshi slowed their steps as they looked up. One by one ships slid into view across the threshold of a beacon’s aura. The beacon itself was so distant it was no more than a pinprick of light as viewed by the naked eye, so the arriving ships were visible from the station only because their images were being superimposed on the concourse’s transparent shell.
A young woman had halted at an optimal distance to get the best angle on the huge curved viewing window. “Anzû. Kolea. Asphodel Crane. Alicanto. That’s the … the Bulsajo.”
“That’s not a corvette, Princess,” said the burly soldier who stood beside her. Octavian had been making visual sweeps of movement in and out of the gates that connected the concourse to the various rings, nodes, and piers of the station. He tipped his chin up as he glanced at the enlarged image. “It’s a corsair. They’re both built for atmosphere landings, from the same original Yele design. But—”
“But a corsair has an additional comms bulb on the exterior because it usually hunts alone and can’t rely on a task force’s greater comms reach as a fleet corvette does.” She tilted her head to the left. “I see the extra bulb now.”
His lips quirked. “I was worried for an instant there that you hadn’t been paying attention in class. The corsair must be one of the local Na Iri militia ships that got commandeered by our fleet before the battle.”
“It wasn’t assigned to my attack group.”
A spontaneous cheer rose from the concourse as a Tulpar-class battle cruiser—much larger than the corvettes and fast frigates in the vanguard—appeared out of the beacon’s aura.
“Seems the Boukephalas’s part in the engagement has reached fleet ears,” observed Octavian, indicating the battle cruiser.
“Will it be enough?”
“Will what be enough, Princess?”
She didn’t answer. At first glance she was nothing special: medium height, median looks, and wearing an unobtrusive uniform. Nevertheless, people nudged each other and gestured in surprise as they walked and wheeled past her and her companion. If she noticed, she did not let on, her attention fixed on the returning ships and what their victory meant for the Republic of Chaonia’s conflict with the Phene Empire. For what the battle’s outcome and her part in it meant for her future.
On the busy concourse, colleagues greeted each other with news of the victory in the hushed tones of people aware the casualty report hasn’t yet come in. Many were streaming Channel Idol even though the Ministry of War had not released an official statement.
What’s next for the heir to the throne of the Republic of Chaonia? After Princess Sun’s bold attack from the flank turned the tide of battle and brought victory to the fleet over the Phene aggressors, will the princess get the duty post she seeks? Or does the queen-marshal plan to tie her close to home? Are the wedding rumors true? Stay tuned to Channel Idol! And now, the farm report. Crop stats from Chaonia Prime are in. It’s been a bumper season for ‘ulu and squash!
Sun leaned forward to examine a badly damaged corvette coming through. “There’s the Bulsajo. Look at that debris trail! It’s pulling half its guts along.”
A flash of gold by one of the gates caught her eye. The steady buzz of conversation died away, choked off as a swirl of unexpected movement entered the concourse. Silence fell except for nervous coughs and the rhythmic hiss of the ventilation system. Octavian released the clip that held a concussion rifle against his back and placed his body between the princess and the densest part of the crowd. The sea of onlookers parted, people stepping out of the way as a man and his entourage carved a path toward her across the gleaming expanse of deck.
“Stand down,” Sun said dryly to Octavian. “It’s my father.”
Prince João was dressed in a cobalt-blue jacket rigged with gold chains, white jodhpurs, and embroidered boots. A glimmering network of lines across his face like a shining neural tattoo marked him as a Royal of the Gatoi. His honor guard identified him as a consort to the queen-marshal. Instead of a respectable contingent of decorated Chaonian marines like Octavian, he traveled with his own personal cohort of Gatoi banner soldiers. There were six of them today, walking with the easy grace of a people trained from childhood to fight to the death if need be and never regret the dying. Everyone in the concourse kept their distance from the perilous Gatoi and guardedly turned so as not to have their backs to them. Those closest made sure to avoid looking directly at their eyes.
Prince João halted in front of the princess as his people set up a perimeter, facing out toward the concourse. First he gave Octavian a nod. Then he surveyed Sun from the bloodred garrison cap perched atop her head to the polished toes of her shipboard boots. His hand flicked out, and she stiffened, face heating with a flush. He intended to adjust some infinitesimal misalignment of her jacket and she could not stop him without appearing rude to her esteemed parent. But just before he touched her clothes he recalled the nature and size of their audience. With a flourish of the hand, as if a theatrical gesture was what he’d intended all along, he indicated her uniform without handling it.
“The drabness and modesty of an unmarked duty uniform is an adept statement. Especially since it will be contrasted with the flamboyance of your successful flanking maneuver. With the way you not only broke and routed the enemy line but used your attack group to surround and destroy the Phene command ship and its escort.”
“How does Channel Idol already know the details of the course of the battle and my part in it?” she demanded. “I claimed passage on the fast courier so I’d be first to bring news of the victory to the queen-marshal.”
“And has Eirene seen you?”
A familiar churn of frustration tightened her chest. “She has not, even though the palace corvette is docked at Pier 8. I was told she isn’t yet on station.”
“How like her,” João murmured, but his watchful gaze remained on Sun, measuring her reaction.
“Breathe, Princess,” said Octavian in her ear. “Don’t let your temper control you.”
She breathed a slow inhale and exhale and, after making a slight alteration to the alignment of her jacket, was able to speak in something approaching a normal tone. “I was required to give my report to Crane Marshal Zàofù. He only had his son with him. Anas, obviously. Not James.”
“Two of the most tediously pompous people in existence,” remarked João.
“My point is that none of the ministries or palace officials have made a statement about the battle yet. She’ll blame you for the leak to Channel Idol and be furious.”
The prince raised perfectly sculpted eyebrows. “However shall I manage Eirene’s notorious temper? I quake in my authentically detailed boots.”
“Did you leak it? Because if you did, you must have known it would anger her. When she’s angry at you it affects how she treats me.”
“No, I did not leak the news. I expect your mother had it leaked as soon as Zàofù pinged her your report.”
“Why would she leak it? Why not just release the official report? Why pretend she’s not here and refuse to see me? What do I have to do, what impossible task must I accomplish, to win a word of praise from my mother?”
“Ah. So that’s what’s eating you.”
Naturally the people on the concourse had already taken it upon themselves to go back about their business, hurrying on their way despite the intriguing scene of the prince greeting his daughter. Channel Idol’s ubiquitous camera wasps weren’t allowed to roam in military installations, yet images of this piquant public reunion would soon spread across the Republic of Chaonia’s confederated solar systems. Prince João might be an untrustworthy foreigner, but no one in Chaonia could fault his absolute devotion to his only child.
“Listen and learn, my unconquerable Sun.” The prince started to walk. Sun kept pace, wondering where he was leading her but knowing it would be the right place to go. “Your mother is a complicated person. She’ll be thrilled at this evidence of your tactical skills, your boldness and follow-through. But she’ll be pricked by envy as well. She was young once too.”
“She’s not that old.”
“Indeed she is not. She has many years left to her, as chance, fortune, the gods, and Lady Chaos allow. Certainly she’s packed more accomplishments into the twenty years of your young life than any ten thousand people can manage in a hundred.”
Sun said nothing. Queen-Marshal Eirene had achieved what everyone said was impossible. But since she’d done it, that meant it hadn’t been impossible.
Which meant the impossible was not just achievable but necessary.
“Youth has a particularly sharp glint of promise,” the prince went on with a sidelong glance at her that always seemed to pry into her secret thoughts. “Her silence is good strategy. If she praises her sole viable but ancestrally contentious heir too effusively, her praise looks suspect and self-serving. Citizens might think she cares more about keeping the queen-marshalate in her line of descent than in what’s best for the republic. But if the palace releases a dry report noting your accomplishments after the details of your dazzling maneuver have been splashed all over Channel Idol, then her restraint highlights your splendid deeds. Do you see?”
“I wanted my first command to be successful, and it was,” said Sun with an edge of impatience for her father’s ceaseless spinning of plots and undercurrents. “I wanted our forces to take control of Na Iri and its beacons, to drive out the Phene from that system, and we did.”
“Keep the target in mind,” he said cryptically.
They reached one of the gates that led out of the concourse onto an array of elevators, transport pods, and slide-ways.
“Where are we going?” Sun asked.
“In her own unpredictable way, Eirene is very predictable.”
A ping bloomed into a sixteen-pointed sunburst in Sun’s network, perceived just beyond her right eye—a summons from the queen-marshal.
“Just as I expected.” João allowed a control panel to scan his retinal signature and flag open a pod that would take them to the station’s secure command node.
The pod was big enough to seat sixteen, but only the prince settled onto a padded bench seat. The Gatoi arranged themselves to guard the two sealed doors, while Sun remained standing respectfully in front of her father with Octavian in silent attendance at her back.
“Father, do you know anything about wedding rumors?” A beloved face flashed in her mind’s eye, but she pushed the distracting and forbidden thought aside impatiently. “No one has said anything to me about a marriage. I’m not interested.”
“I expect that’s just Channel Idol sweetening the pot with an extra dab of honey. Pay it no mind. Eirene can’t betroth you without my consent. I had a codicil written into our marriage contract.”
He licked a finger and leaned over to rub a smear of dust off a nacre pendant nestled amid the embroidery decorating his boot. The pendant was carved into the shape of snake’s wings to represent one of the thirteen exalted officials and gracious courtiers who attend the throne of the Celestial Empire of lost memory. Once the nacre gleamed to his satisfaction, he straightened.
“Now, listen carefully. Don’t diminish your accomplishments, but don’t boast of them either. The evidence of your deeds is the only trophy you need.”
Sun sighed, knowing there was more lecture to come. Instead João folded his hands on his lap and nodded with a rare warm smile of heady approval.
“You did well. This is only the beginning.”
Copyright © 2020 by Katrina Elliott