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I follow Aeson back through his bedroom with its slightly rumpled bed—which I assume means that he at least made the attempt to lie down—and the rest of the long chain of rooms and suites, including the master, up to the front ante-chamber with the long balcony. This is the room that leads outside the Imperial Crown Prince's Quarters, and once we exit, I realize we will be in the outer corridor through which we arrived last night.

As we walk, Aeson begins to tell me in a very composed but serious voice, what to expect. "My Father likes to eat his first meal of the day by himself, and very early," he says, taking my hand again impulsively, now that we are alone, and massaging it in a way that is both reassuring and innocently sensual—I don't think he realizes the effect his touch has on me—or maybe he does? "I had hoped he would give us at least some respite first thing in the morning, considering it's the day after we've just landed, but apparently not. Sometimes he eats as early as sixth hour when it is still dawn, as he watches the sunrise from the roof pavilion. But usually it is around seven-thirty."

"Okay," I say nervously. "Will we be actually sitting down and eating with him? Or—"

"Good question. I don't know." Aeson gives my fingers and palm another lingering caress and squeeze before letting go with reluctance. He glances at me as he opens the outer door of the ante-chamber and we step outside. Here I see the security detail, six guards standing at attention, though they are not the same ones from yesterday. Seeing Aeson, they salute sharply, and then fall in line behind us as we walk.

"Aeson . . ." I whisper. "Do these guards go with you everywhere?"

He makes a soft sound that could be a snort. "Oh yes, always. . . . You have no idea."

My lips part.

But he continues. "When we get to the Imperial Quarters, do what I do. If I bow, you bow, if I sit, you sit. Try not to speak at all unless he asks you something. Then, speak as little as possible, and to the point. And Gwen—" Here he turns to look at me directly and actually pauses walking, while his face fills with concern. "Gwen, please try not to speak too much even if he asks you to speak. I realize how hard it might be for you, and you like to say things with great emphasis and conviction—which I find admirable—but please—this once, just let it go. If my Father says something you find—difficult in any way, just let it go."

I stare up at him, amazed that he is actually pleading with me. "Of course," I say gently, feeling suddenly very bad on his behalf. Me and my big mouth! Poor Aeson! He is actually afraid I will put my foot in it, in the presence of the Imperator!

At my response Aeson nods, and we continue walking.

After a few seconds I turn to him, while my thoughts are churning wildly with alarm. "Aeson . . ." I mutter. "My clothes. . . . Do I look okay? I'm sorry, I know these are old and beat-up, but I don't have anything else, and Manala's outfits in that closet are so intricate—"

Aeson casts me a quick glance. "You look fine, don't worry about it."

"Okay. . . ." But now my thoughts are racing with stress.

What will the Imperator think? I look like total crap!

We take the elevator to another level higher up, and then exit into a great lobby-like hall of mauve and cream marble, filled with many other elevators, and many ornate doors, and a variety of Palace servants moving around everywhere.

"The Imperial Quarters," Aeson says softly. "This whole floor is my Father's. My Mother has her Quarters here also."

"Okay. . . ."

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