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Prologue

The Imperial Court
Consecra
Year 1220

The princess was still dancing with Lord Sewoytki, he noted. For the past hour at least, and what exactly she could find to keep laughing about with that pompous ass for an hour was beyond him. He’d tried it once—well, not the laughing, but the talking—and just the memory of it was enough to keep a sour look on his face, scaring off all but the most ardent of the girls that liked to surround him at these occasions.

Captainlieutenant Casilim-la Cassim-la, second in command of the Imperial Guard to the Heir–namely, one Princess Anutéa, currently engaged in spinning around the room endlessly–hated these occasions.

He had no luck, he thought miserably. None of it showed on his face, other than the sour scowl. Not the irritation, boredom, or ache behind his knee where Jiki had gotten in a particularly good blow this morning during a spar. He was professionally blank. But still: no luck.

One of his ardent admirers followed his gaze to the princess, but wisely said nothing. The other–Swendayia Mlanie, a cousin to Lord Sewoytki by a degree or two of separation–was not so quick on the ball.

“They’ve been dancing for an awfully long time,” she mused aloud. He considered telling her that Jiki had made him a bet on the dancing tonight: fifty credits that they’d dance at least two hours together. The entire event was only scheduled to last three. Casilim-la, who after all had no luck, had insisted they would dance no longer than an hour and a half. Surely, surely, Princess Anutéa would spend half her time with someone else.

Anyone else.

So far, she didn’t seem inclined to so much as speak with her hosts.

“I’ve heard they’re a sure thing,” another girl said. ‘Girl,’ but really she was his age, twenty-two or thereabouts, and stunning even for an Ala’tre’uaio’la’pr. Llandylin Moiru had hair the colour of sapphires reaching down to the backs of her knees, never a strand straying from its assigned place, done up in seemingly-random braids which started and stopped in a hundred different configurations. He’d never understood why Moiru, in particular, was so attached to him: she was wealthy enough that even a captainlieutenant of the Guard would not be a particularly fine match. The purity knew he never encouraged her.

“I heard she prefers Stonan,” Mlanie almost spat back. He gave her a look, and she softened immediately. Mlanie couldn’t stand Moiru, and the two of them frequently argued. It was exhausting, but he didn’t say anything. He didn’t want to get involved, didn’t want to participate in these stupid petty arguments, didn’t want to anything, really.

Gossip, petty gossip, and she spun spun spun around the room with Lord Sewoytki. Not for the first time—or the last—he wondered at how vapid it all seemed. It wasn’t all, of course: in some parts of this Court real work happened, real decisions were made, plans that affected hundreds of billions at a time. And yet it co-existed with this, this veneer of uselessness.

Jitikili stepped up beside him with a nod. They were the only two beings from non-Primary planets stationed in the Heir-guard, and although Jiki wasn’t a Reacher like himself, it was still nice to have someone to speak with who hadn’t come from a life of absolute luxury. Jitikili, better known as Jiki, smiled at the two women but only Mlanie smiled back. Moiru was watching the crowd with a distracted frown.

“Captainlieutenant,” he said cheerfully. Jiki was always cheerful, almost too much so, though Casilim-la had his own suspicions about the other man’s demeanour. It hardly fit with the persona they ought to portray of implacable aloofness, but Jiki pulled it off somehow. “Enjoying the view?”

He rolled his eyes minutely. “Hello, lieutenant. The view is informative, but I can’t say I’m enjoying it, per se.” Jiki’s grin widened.

“Well, I think it’s quite… enriching.” He smiled at Mlanie, his grin replaced easily with a look of such genuine pleasure that Casilim-la very nearly rolled his eyes again. “Would you like to dance? Standing around with him can’t be any fun.”

“…yes, thank you,” Mlanie replied after a moment, rather surprising him. Not in a bad way, as he really didn’t want to encourage any of them, but…

He watched Jiki and Mlanie head onto the floor contemplatively, then resumed his observations of Anutéa. Lord Sewoytki was hovering rather close to her, he noted. Another song started and she held out her hand in invitation. Moiru sighed beside him, then startled.

“Oh, isn’t that Captain Antares?” she asked, pointing off into the crowd. He looked. There was no mistaking him, his body tall even by Ala’tre’uaoi’la’pr standards, hair shining like molten gold. The crowd rippled apart before him and closed behind again, such that he walked through it like a sword cutting through water. He was headed straight for them, with a pleasant expression which nonetheless didn’t invite conversation of any sort. Captain Antares, at least, had no trouble maintaining that implacable aloofness.

He straightened as Antares approached. He’d always had the feeling that Antares didn’t like him, which wasn’t exactly surprising but still disappointing, and whatever this was about he didn’t want to get any further on the man’s bad side. It was a surprise to see him here tonight. Antares commanded the guard to the family, not the heir, and no family members were present. 

From across the room he saw Jiki watching with narrowed eyes and hoped the other man would have the sense to stay on the dance floor with Mlanie. Jiki looked relaxed where he stood, holding Mlanie’s arms and smiling, but he knew from experience that he could sharpen into action in a second.

And this wasn’t anything, he hoped as Antares reached him. Nothing at all.

Moiru excused herself and walked off, evidently nearly as used to the working of the Guard as he was.

“Casilim-la,” he said by way of pleasantries. “Walk with me.”

They stepped around the crowd, walking away a little way, Antares keeping the pleasant look on his face. He was tense, though, visibly so under his court uniform of charcoal grey.

Another alert, he thought with a sigh. Must be. He hadn’t had a message yet, but it was the best explanation. They stopped by a tall potted fern, shielded somewhat from visible curiosity, and he waited impatiently for Antares to explain what he needed.

“There’s been another incursion,” he started without preamble. He had one half-second to reflect that this job was getting too predictable before he had to pay attention as the captain continued. “We’re not raising an alarm yet. It might be a false alarm, and we don’t need another embarrassment.” They had had no fewer than three false alarms in the last months–or more precisely, real alarms which had turned out to be waylaid tourists–and so he empathized. Just because some ambassador’s kid from Calris stole a shuttle and took it for a joyride in low atmo did not mean the entire Court should go on lockdown, in his opinion. “We’re going to try a different evacuation method this time. Find a way to alert the princess and get her out–quietly–in the next five minutes. If it ends up a real alarm, she’s out. If not, no harm done.”

Casilim-la blinked once. It was on the tip of his tongue to say ‘and the rest of the guests?,’ but he had better sense than that. Just like Moiru, he thought to himself with an internal sigh. You watch, you listen, you learn, and you have the sense not to say anything.

“Yes, sir,” he acknowledged instead. He glanced over to where the princess and Lord Sewoytki were still dancing as the music wore down. He’d progressed to twirling one finger around a strand of her improbably long hair.

At least Jiki wouldn’t end up winning that fucking bet.

It was easy enough to approach her, crowds swirling around him in rather the same way they had for Antares, though he was unaware. The crowds on Consecra–crowds of Primary Duodecuplians, Ala’pr and Tyrillians and Majji–had assumed a sort of impenetrable superiority in his mind, after eight months here. He walked amongst them daily, but was never of them.

Easy enough to make the approach, with Jiki watching and Antares stalking away (and why was Antares involved, anyway? It was a question for another time). Easy enough to stand close, to catalogue a plethora of minute facts: they stood close together, as if pressed in. Their hair was mused slightly, scattered together so that purple mingled unabashedly with emerald. Her colour was up, eyes the same exact shade of her hair (and he would never get used to that in a hundred years, some alien genetics were just too alien) sparkling with pleasure.

Harder to know what to say, though he knew what he had to do. He drew in a deep breath as she turned to him, blasting him with a thousand degrees of pure unadulterated joy. Bolfenni were not telepathic, but one did not need extra-sensory perception to read the adoration and pleasure in her face. He wondered why they hadn’t bothered to confirm the rumours which were growing by the hour. Maybe they didn’t feel the need to, because it was simply so obvious that the next prince consort was destined to be one Pompous Ass–er, pardon, Sewoytki Loren.

“Captain,” she said cheerfully, and Anutéa was so rarely cheerful that he halted a moment. “I didn’t see you.”

He’d been there the entire evening, going on (but not quite) two hours now, watching her in case of—what, exactly? An assassin in the crowd? But he made himself smile and truthfully it was not so hard. It was difficult to resist the sparkle in her eyes or the pleasure in her face or the way she looked at him, only an inch of difference in their heights, and expected him to share her happiness. So he did.

He expected any sapient being would have done the same.

“I was wondering if you might want to share a dance,” he asked her, out of nowhere, as if it were the sort of everyday occurrence that happened any one of these interminable evenings. As if he ever danced, as if she ever really spoke with him, as if, as if–

Anutéa was silent for a moment–she did not look displeased, merely surprised. Lord Sewoytki, however, raised one supremely elegant eyebrow in his direction.

“I was under the impression that this was a social evening,” he drawled quietly. “Are you certain that you know how to be social? We wouldn’t want you to embarrass yourself.”

He inhaled quietly. As insults went, it wasn’t Sewoytki’s best, and he wasn’t going to rise to the bait. Beside him, Anutéa was looking expectant.

“Well?” he prompted her with a small smile. She reached out and took his hand and let him lead her away.

“I would be pleased,” she replied, and the press of her hand in his was cool and dry. Bolfenn was a hot planet, so much warmer than Consecra that he often wore a small, personal heating device to bring the temperature up to something bearable. But the coolness of Anutéa’s hand in his–and her fingers were so long, so fragile–it did not chill him at all. It soothed.

Above her shoulder he saw Jiki staring at them, the idiot, and if he didn’t shift his fucking gaze right now–as if he’d heard the thought, Jiki blanched and looked away. A moment later Casilim-la had the recollection that he could, in fact, message Jiki through his neurocomms, and did so.

> DON’T WATCH US

Then he returned his full attention to the princess. The entire exchange had taken a few seconds or less, most people would not have noticed it at all. Anutéa was not like most people: she was already frowning at him, and he mourned the loss of her happy, carefree countenance.

It pained him, somewhere deep under his ribs, that he was (and would forever be) the bearer of grave news to her, the disturber of happiness, the proof that the monster was out there, lurking in the shadows of every happy evening, every carefree dance.

“Is something wrong?” she asked under her breath as they began to dance. The ruse was quite convenient: he could speak quietly to her, he could explain what had to happen without being overheard by Sewoytki or any of the crowd, and if he didn’t care about any of that in the dip of her back under his hand, in the thick heavy weight of saphir-silk, in the tickle of her hair–no-one would ever have to know.

Quite a few things were wrong, and none of them were any of her concern. “There’s a security incident in progress.”

She sighed, not in any sort of alarm but a kind of resignation. “Another joyrider?” she asked dryly. “Or perhaps a technical malfunction aboard a shuttlepod, this time? I shudder to think the state the poor technicians will be in, trying to diagnose it so,” her voice deepened perceptibly as her eyes regained their lost sparkle, “‘an incident of this nature can never again recur.’” The impression of Captain Aerendyl, the commander of the guard to the heir and Casilim-la’s CO, was uncanny. Everything he said had such an air of unlikely gravitas.

Something must have shown on his face, disturbing what he’d meant to be the same implacability as always, because she beamed. “It’s rather good, isn’t it? I’ve been practicing. I can do Captain Antares, too.” The dance required that they switch places, and from his new vantage point he couldn’t see Jiki, did see Sewoytki frowning at them. She cleared her throat, a little a-hem that was irresistible.  This time when she spoke there was a twinge to it, not an accent so much as too much nose. It was undeniably Antares, and he’d never even noticed the nasality, too over-awed. “What is it this time, captainlieutenant? More tourists? We can’t let this embarrass the Guard!”

“That’s…. very nearly exactly what he said,” he replied in shock. “Were you listening?”

“No, I was busy,” she replied nonchalantly. He checked the time in his neuros: it had been nearly three minutes already. He had to get her moving. “That’s how he always speaks. Embarrass the Guard, embarrass the family, on and on.”

He shook his head. “Well, he isn’t wrong. After the dance, I’m going to escort you off to—I don’t know, get a drink or something. We can get out quietly and head to the safe rooms. There’s–”

She spun around and he awkwardly changed positions again. “What about Loren?”

“He’ll be safe here.”

“I’m not leaving him behind. It might not be an ambassador’s child, this time.”

He couldn’t see Sewoytki from where he was standing, now, but he did see Jiki. Good: he could put the other man to some use. “I’ll have someone escort him away too, a minute or two after you go.”

She was silent for a moment and he could practically feel his time running down. “Alright. But I’m not going to the safe rooms.”

The music wound down: he was too busy with their–not argument, their discussion–to truly appreciate the last moments of her. She slipped back a few inches when the music ended and the saphir-silk, the tickle of hair, the scent of her like sugared lemons was gone. “Where do you want to go, then?” She took his arm and he led them away, blasting a short message to Jiki that he saw the other man blink at even as they moved finally, finally, out of the crowd.

> get Sewoytki out QUIETLY and meet us in the p hall in three minutes

“Away somewhere. I was enjoying this evening, I don’t want to spend the rest of it locked in the basement.”

They passed small clumps of people who smiled and nodded at Anutéa, smiled and skipped their eyes over him. The reminder that monsters exist, he thought uneasily, and really he ought to be used to it by now.

He led them away from the groups, crowd lessening throughout the large rooms they passed through until they were alone. P hall–the Imperial Hall of Infinite Planets, really, but he wasn’t going to dignify such an overwrought name in his own communications–was a distance away, but sheltered quite effectively under about three stories of reinforced tricrete. And from there it was only a short hop to the safe rooms, which were certainly his preference.

“We’ll meet up with Lord Sewoytki and decide,” he relied diplomatically. Still no alert had been raised: he hoped whatever, or whoever, had set this off was currently getting a much deserved and very stern talking-to. Preferably with blasters raised.

P hall was lined with windows six foot square, showing vistas from every planet of the empire. Without conscious thought they simply displayed scenes from around the empire: by standing in front of one and willing it, by some technology he didn’t understand, the scenes could be fixed to a particular planet, perhaps a particular city. They stepped in front of one window and Anutéa smiled at it, replacing the scene from a planet he didn’t know–all orange glare and purple tower spires–with one that was immediately recognizable. Dangati: her favourite place to visit. The underwater vista shown now was serene, huge bubbles floating by, apparently made of simple air pockets but large and strong enough to hold people and furniture as they wafted in the currents.

“I’d love to go somewhere like this just now,” she said wistfully. He wasn’t at all sure she’d meant it for him. Her voice was low, gaze distant. Behind them echoed footsteps, and he turned quickly to see Jiki and Lord Sewoytki approaching, Jiki with a rather fixed smile on his face and Sewoytki sneering.

You’re lucky we pulled you out at all, he thought irritably.

But beside him Anutéa visibly brightened and relaxed as she heard the others approaching. “Loren, I’m so glad,” she breathed, as if it had been some daring escape and not an untroubled walk down the corridor. She pulled away from him to stand beside Sewoytki, and he didn’t sigh.

“My question remains,” Sewoytki said with the air of one continuing a conversation to which half of them had not been present, “where we are going?”

“I don’t know,” Anutéa replied with a smile. “I told the captain I’d like somewhere fun. What do you think?”

Lord Sewoytki looked at Casilim-la, a challenging gleam in his eyes. “Somewhere fun? Well, my dear, I think we could do no better than Starfall,” he said easily, and he felt a swoop like the gravity had given out.

Starfall? Starfall? Seriously, while they were under a security alert?

Except, he realized ruefully, they weren’t under a security alert. Behind them the ceaseless parties went on, whirling and spinning into each other, little useless atoms.

> he couldn’t have picked starrise? came the neuros message from Jiki, echoing his own thoughts. And the princess had already taken to the idea if the expression on her face was anything to go by.

“I’ve never been,” she breathed delightedly.

Consecra, though he knew it largely as a joint temple-cum-palace-cum-military base, was really a moon; and that moon had two artificial satellites. One, Starrise, was quite tame, a well-lit shopping area surrounded by cafes and the well-to-do homes of those who preferred not to stay on Consecra, with its endless rains. He, too, would rather not live on Consecra. But one had to be profoundly wealthy not just to afford the rent on Starrise, but to have the connections for a permanent system pass. Starrise was unobjectionable.

Starfall, on the other hand…

Well, it was still tame by the standards of the galaxy at large–no unresolved murders of an evening–but as a place to which he would bring the heir: no. Not ever. She might be found out. She might not be found out, and… and bad things had been known to happen to pretty girls on Starfall. She’s Ala’tre’uaio’la’pr, he tried to convince himself in the silence that had settled over the four of them. An obviously rich, obviously quite well bred Ala’pr. Nobody is going to try anything; they’d have to be crazy.

“Well, no time like the present then,” Sewoytki replied, keeping that same challenging look in his eyes as he watched Casilim-la.

> can you think of any excuse, he sent Jiki with more than a twinge of desperation.

> i’m trying, came back with less than a second’s delay. In front of them, Anutéa was smiling once again, that same joy radiating. I don’t want to be stuck in a basement, she’d said, and it seemed as though she wasn’t going to be.

He had absolutely no luck.

He managed to win one concession: Anutéa could absolutely not go to Starfall as herself. She’d sighed and pulled her long hair up, undone the many braids and accoutrements, changed into just slightly less nice clothing. There was no hiding the fact that she was a profoundly wealthy Ala’pr, and truth be told he thought that was for the best. She would have him and Jiki there, after all, to keep back any unsavoury types. Sewoytki just rolled his eyes at the three of them and exchanged a long-sleeved top for a sleeveless one. He had surprisingly well-defined muscles underneath.

They arrived at Starfall in one of the less-flashy shuttles, an older Renian Corp Mark VI. He’d always liked the Mark VI’s, really. Unassuming as they were, they were quick and pretty light on the touch. What he didn’t like about this one in particular was the paint job, which someone in the past had decided ought to be a truly gaudy gold. He felt like he was piloting a whore’s craft, all glitter and promises.

They disembarked into an umbilical, the sort of entrance tunnel you still saw on older stations. The gravity was lower up here, so it was easy to grab the rungs inset into the umbilical and propel himself through. Jiki likewise had no issues, but Anutéa was stuck at the bottom of the well, laughing with Sewoytki. He doubted she’d ever seen such a thing. Perhaps she’d be unable to navigate it and they could go back to Consecra. Miracles had to happen sometimes, right?

But alas, with many more giggles than the problem really deserved, she managed to hoist herself up. She emerged from the tunnel in a waft of purple hair and that same sugary scent.

> you’re scowling, Jiki sent over helpfully, and Casilim-la had the strongest, very nearly unstoppable, urge to reply that he was being insubordinate.

They headed off into the station proper, drawing more than a few stares and abrupt conversations. Anutéa and Sewoytki were so… so prominent, even in informal clothes, even with hair tied back and without their usual retinues. They seemed to draw attraction as a light drew moths, they seemed to suck up the oxygen. He shook the distracting metaphors away as Anutéa gestured elegantly towards a small bar, set deep into the cavernous station walls.

“Let’s try here,” she said enthusiastically, and he acquiesced doubtfully. Starfall was artfully decrepit: there was a lingering smell of fried food which the O2 scrubbers should have eliminated, dirt around the joins in the walls. He couldn’t be sure if it was genuine or not but suspected not. Still, the bar was in keeping with its surroundings and he couldn’t muster up much enthusiasm for a dirty bar in a station whose O2 scrubbers needed replacing.

Jiki glanced at him and, before the other man could send him another ‘helpful’ message he shot one of his own back.

> we’re just going to go along with this until she’s bored and get out.

Wisely, Jiki made no reply.

They sat in a small booth, dimly lit and sheltered from being overheard by the simple expedient of the titanic volume of noise in every direction. There were screens blaring sports casts, movies and–directly behind Anutéa, maybe she wouldn’t turn around to see–pornography which was probably meant to be ‘artistic.’

Sewoytki ordered them a round of drinks and then sat back, observing the scene with what seemed very nearly a scientific precision.

Scene, set: the imperial princess, drinking a beer whilst seated before a video of two very different alien species performing a graphic sexual act on each other. The second- and fifth- in command of her personal guard, in civilian clothes, definitely not unaware of the pornography and on edge in the extremely crowded bar. And to top it off, the unofficial-de-facto prince consort, watching them all.

He took a sip of his own beer and sighed. No luck.

“This is so interesting,” Anutéa shouted. She had to shout to be heard over the roar of a distant crowd as someone put a ball through a hoop. “Have you all been here before?”

“I come here often,” Sewoytki replied, but truthfully he couldn’t see Pompous Ass doing anything of the sort. “There’s another bar, up a level, that has better music though.”

“Oh! We’ll go there next, then,” she replied happily. “Do you two ever come up here?”

This directed at Casilim-la and Jiki. Behind her, one of the women—well, he supposed it was a woman, he wasn’t really sure—let out an overzealous moan. Even Anutéa couldn’t miss that, and she turned around to see what had caused the noise. They went silent, even Sewoytki, each evidently uncomfortable in his own unique way.

“…that was unexpected,” she said after a moment, turning back to face them without even a hint of embarrassment. “But you never answered me, do you two ever visit Starfall? Do you know where the best music is?”

He blinked.

> until she gets bored, huh? Jiki sent, and he wasn’t even sure what to say. You’d have thought she sat in bars watching pornography every day.

“No, I never… well, not never,” he had to hedge, honesty compelling the truth. “I prefer to stay on Consecra.” And it was true, if not the whole truth. He preferred Consecra when the options were between this, an expensive shopping plaza, or the ever-rainy moon. The fact that he worked twenty-hour days also influenced his choices.

“I come here all the time,” Jiki replied flippantly. He looked at him from the corner of his eye. Oh, really? When, exactly?

“So you know where the best music is?” she asked, leaning forwards, beer forgotten. Jiki smiled.

“Let me show you.”

The next destination looked rather nicer than the last, thankfully, though no less loud.

At least the noise here was only one song, played at a decibel level that might rupture eardrums sooner than later, instead of three distinct and competing videos. There was that small mercy. It was up a level, where the air freshers were working hard to eliminate the fried foods and drinks; the perfumes and colognes and bodies and everything else. The freshers were not quite up to the task, even here. This bar–Jiki called it a club, though–was larger, brightly lit inside, and had huge windows overlooking the street. It also had bouncers.

“Well, shall we?” Jiki prompted the group. Anutéa nodded and followed him in without comment, Sewoytki following. Casilim-la was left to trail the others and was stopped before he could enter, much to his surprise.

He looked down at the thick arm barring his entry, so stunned that he barely registered the man’s words. “No reachers.”

Ahead of him he saw Anutéa sitting down, escorted by Sewoytki, and Jiki looking back at him with a frown. He felt one deep, heart-deep, soul-deep pang of embarrassment, followed by a much more productive anger. Sure, he was from the reaches, so fucking what? It didn’t matter to the heir to the throne, the hells could it matter to this guy?

> what is it? Jiki asked, and he shook his head minutely. He’d handle this himself, but he supposed he’d better tell them something.

> they won’t let me in

> WHAT?

The bouncer was watching him, probably aware that he was linked with someone else. He still had his arm barring the way, though, so Casilim-la gave him a smile and stepped back an inch. If it wasn’t quite a friendly smile, well, no harm.

> just distract A & S

“I suggest you let me in,” he replied quietly. “There’s two ways this can go. The one where you shut up, back off, and this doesn’t have to go any further. Or the one where you still end up shutting up and backing off, but you lose your job, too.”

Anutéa and Sewoytki were distracted by drinks, he saw: not beer this time, but something tall, blue, and shooting off improbably large sparks.

The bouncer laughed. “Oh, yeah? And what’s a little reacher like you going to do?”

It was so long since Casilim-la, an officer of the Imperial Guard, had been called ‘little’ that he laughed aloud. The uniform made him opaque: he’d never considered that it might make him seem taller, as well.

Unfortunately the laugh attracted attention. Anutéa looked around and saw him by the door.

> i thought i told you to distract her, he sent irritably, and it was too late anyway. She was walking over towards them, still smiling, probably entirely unawares that anything might be wrong.

“Come in,” she called out to him cheerfully. “Jitikili ordered us something called an Electric Fizzing Pistol, it’s really–what’s the matter?” It was an uncanny echo of earlier in the evening, and once again he felt that pain under his ribs. But he reminded himself–as much as he could, anger and annoyance and pain warring within him–that Anutéa did not care he was a reacher. Most in the court did, Pompous Ass certainly did, but Anutéa had never paused over him for so much as a moment.

“Nothing,” he replied at the same moment the bouncer grunted “No reachers in the establishment” in her direction. She paused and blinked at the two of them.

“No reachers?” she repeated, as if she’d never heard such a thing before and was struggling to understand what he meant.

His plan had been simple: flash some identicomms at the bouncer, use his rank to get in to the club and quietly. But now Anutéa was watching and, worse, there was a small crowd gathering, gawking at the contraposition between the elegant Ala’pr and the rest of the scene. He swallowed, trying to hold back the anger. They had to stay quiet, as forgettable as possible. And that meant not drawing anyone’s attention to a captain of the Guard accompanied by an indigo-haired Ala’tre’uaio’la’pr.

Sewoytki just couldn’t have picked Starrise, could he? He flashed the other man a look and was surprised to see the chagrin on his face. He hadn’t supposed Pompous Ass had any emotions other than ‘haughty.’

It ate at him, but he’d have to yield. Instead of arguing the point he stepped back another foot, letting the bouncer’s arm fall down. From behind him he heard a half-muted whisper or two:

“What’s going on?”

“…thought it was more of a Duodecuplian place…”

“Sorry. I’ll go.” He glanced at Anutéa and forced a smile, as normal as he could make it, but he’d never been much of an actor. “You three stay here and enjoy your drinks. I’ll go…” he waved behind him vaguely, “…somewhere else.”

> i won’t go far, he shot Jiki, and was surprised at the response he got immediately.

> captlt, i’m sorry, i truly apologize, i never thought this could happen

Well, it wasn’t his fault.

It galled, though: the feelings roiling in his stomach, acid and anger and humiliation. It was hard, much harder than it ought to be, to turn around and look over the small, unsympathetic crowd, to scan for a place to sit or–or something.

> not your fault. keep her in eyesight. Obviously Jiki would, but it made him feel better to re-iterate, anyway.

“No.”

It took a moment to register in his mind. He paused and half-turned back, although he already knew it was a mistake, drawing more attention to their little group.

It was Anutéa, standing there with every ounce of her own formidable hauteur drawn about her like a suit of armour. He nearly groaned aloud. By the fucking depths

“Those are the rules,” the bouncer said irritably. “Listen, either you all go, or he goes, I don’t care which. But he is not coming in here.”

“That’s illegal,” she replied frostily, and he nearly spluttered. That’s illegal, is it? he thought. Jiki had gone pale beside her, Sewoytki looked bemused, and the crowd was growing.

> this really needs to get wrapped up, he directed at Jiki, and got a nod in return.

“It’s fine,” he said aloud, getting two looks of surprise and one of consternation in return. “Really.” He looked at Sewoytki, wishing the man had a neurocomms–the ability to send him a direct message just now would be pretty fucking good–but he’d have to accomplish it via spoken word alone. “Just go back to the table and finish your drinks, okay?” Then he turned away.

Just let them go, just let the crowd die away before anyone noticed anything else out of the ordinary.

Behind him, thankfully, he heard Sewoytki speak up. “Let’s finish that drink.”

“No!” Anutéa replied in what sounded like shock. “I’m not–absolutely not.” And then she was pushing past the bouncer and standing beside Casilim-la, peering up into his eyes angrily, as if she were the one who was meant to be protecting him.

He piloted the gaudy golden shuttle back to Consecra quietly, in as much of a state of shock as he had ever been.

Anutéa was silent too, spots of colour high in her cheeks. Sewoytki was conversing quietly with Jiki, and–if he didn’t know better–Casilim-la would have said it was actually to avoid an awkward silence, to allow Casilim-la and Anutéa the time to collect themselves. The thought was very nearly unthinkable coming from Pompous Ass.

When they were only five minutes from the shuttlebay, Casilim-la confirming their final approach with bay control, Anutéa shuffled up to sit beside him. Well, shuffled: she performed every action gracefully, the merest whisper of silk announcing her presence.

“I’m sorry,” she said, very quietly, and nope, he’d been wrong before. Now he was in shock.

“For… for what, your highness?”

She stared at him as if he’d grown a second head. “For what happened. It wasn’t right. It was…” her posture did not change, still erect and poised, but her head fell forward slightly, the most graceful slump he had ever witnessed. “…so I’m sorry.”

Behind them, the conversation faltered a moment.

“It wasn’t your fault,” he said, or tried to say, because she was already shaking her head.

“I wanted to go there. I wanted to do something–something different, but I suppose there’s a reason Captain Aerendyl is always so cautious.” She smiled slightly. “I want to fix it.”

Fix it? For a moment he imagined going back in time, not far, but merely two hours ago, when the non-alert had sounded in the form of Captain Antares. But there was no such thing as time travel, not in any science he’d ever come across.

But she was continuing as the sound of Sewoytki’s voice picked up again, only a little strained. “I mean, it really is illegal. And besides that, it isn’t right. It isn’t moral, it can’t be moral, to deny services to any member of the Empire just because they… they happened to join later.”

He stared at her, fingers steady on the controls of the craft. The actions were so rote, so engrained in his muscle memory, that he didn’t even need to attend to them. ‘Join later’: a pleasant way to say they had been conquered within some species’ living memory.

She swallowed. “I’m going to fix it.”

“In what way?” he asked, utterly perplexed.

“It will be my empire one day.” Her head lifted out of its slump and she fixed him with a stare which pierced him, heart and soul. “And I will not allow these stupid prejudices, these stupid ugly hatreds, to corrupt it.”

Sewoytki had gone silent again at some point, and Jiki too: they were not even pretending to look elsewhere. The craft made a gentle descent onto the landing pad, settling onto the stabilized ground without so much as a murmur. Even without attending to the craft at all, he was a very good pilot.

He was surprised again when it was Sewoytki who broke the silence. “Do you mean it?” he asked her, eyes bright and hard, and what did he know of it anyway? What could Sewoytki q’Loren, Lord Sewoytki, Regnant of Darin-Xia and the Third House, know of prejudices? What could he care?

He was the one to break eye contact, letting his gaze fall to the controls, muted at half-intensity now that the pod had touched down. He could describe every single function elucidated by those controls, hundreds of them, and the ways they could be pushed past what Renian Corp had meant for them to do, and the ways in which they must not be pushed. And he couldn’t describe the feelings her words evoked him in in even two choppy syllables.

She didn’t seem to need a reply, anyway. Anutéa turned back to Sewoytki and said, simply, “Yes.”