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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."


CHAPTER TWO
A Fresh and Sharper Thorn of Disquiet

Once the pod sealed and began to race through the interlocking strands of the orbital station, the senior Gatoi soldier relaxed enough to greet Sun.

"Well met, Your Highness."

"Colonel Evans."

Sun acknowledged the other five banner soldiers as well, all known to her from her father's household. She'd spent many an evening playing mah-jongg with them in her father's pavilion, but this wasn't the place or time for less formal interactions.

Octavian offered Colonel Evans a respectful salutation in recognition of their complementary roles, but the two did not converse. Like every marine who had fought in the border wars he did not trust the Gatoi, not then, not now, not ever. Why should he, when 90 percent of Gatoi banner soldiers fought as auxiliaries for the Phene Empire? Yet he had agreed thirteen years ago to become bodyguard to a seven-year-old princess born of an unexpected union between the young and ambitious queen-marshal of embattled Chaonia and a strong-willed prince of the Gatoi who had broken away from his own Conclave of Royals to make a daring alliance.
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