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Nefir Mekei looks unchanged from the last time I saw him about a year ago—the same steady unblinking stare that at first glance reveals nothing. Except, maybe not quite.

I see that a new weight has settled in his eyes. A weight that I recognize as the subtle burden of guilt.

It is especially noticeable when he notices me.

Nefir acknowledges Aeson first. His courtly salute is impeccable. "My Imperial Lord," he says in a neutral voice. "And my Imperial Lady Gwen," he adds after the tiniest instant of pause. I find it somewhat odd that, upon seeing me for the first time after so many months, his expression does not light up and he doesn't smile at me even a little.

Aeson watches him with an emotionless gaze which I suddenly find alarming.

"Nefir Mekei. What do you have to report?"

There is another moment of pause. The question—it should be harmless, but there is an immediate air of menace hanging between all of us. It's now undeniable. Maybe it is Aeson's icy tone?

"Is it—secure to speak in confidence?" Nefir asks carefully, with a glance in my direction. "Am I permitted to proceed with all the details?"

Suddenly I'm barely breathing, as if some kind of deep secret is about to be revealed to me.

"Speak as you would to me in private," Aeson replies.

"Very well. . . . No significant changes to report," Nefir says evenly. "The situation on the surface remains turbulent, globally, but with no deviations from the previous assessment. A new fire zone has formed in Europe and there is an unfortunate zone expansion in central North America, combining the two infernos in Utah and Colorado into one super-inferno—the fourth one that's currently burning on that continent. Meanwhile I find no anomalies in the chatter from the United Nations and various government entities. Same flat activity for global terror groups. Radiation levels in the north-west Pacific and north Atlantic remain almost identical since previously measured, despite the latest African detonation. Volcanic and seismic readings are stable."

Nefir pauses to glance down at his digital notepad on the desk then resumes in a measured tone. "My complete four-day status report with these details and more will be available for transmission to the ACA Director in Poseidon by opening hour of work on Green Ghost Moon 1, your tomorrow. My—additional, classified status report for the Imperial Sovereign's sole benefit still awaits . . . as per your instructions."

Aeson continues to observe Nefir without saying anything. Several painful seconds tick, and I can see Nefir's blank expression become even more fixed—if such a thing is even possible.

At last Aeson speaks. "You may now relay your classified Imperial report. . . . I give you permission to convey to my Father the significant detail of Margot Lark's death, and the other significant detail of the Lark family rescue."

Nefir inclines his head after the tiniest pause. "Thank you, Imperial Lord. I—am relieved to be able to finally carry out my duty—both my duties—to the Imperial Sovereign, and to you."

"So far you have failed in one of your duties—to me, as my astra daimon heart brother—so at least you can continue to carry out your remaining duty to the Imperial Kassiopei." Aeson's expression is chilling and his voice becomes razor-sharp—not a power voice, but almost, because at once I feel pricklings along my skin, and an intangible weight settles on my spine, sinks inside my bones. . . .

Nefir must feel it too. He blinks, parts his lips, but waits before reacting. He inhales deeply, and momentarily glances at me before returning his full attention to Aeson. "I am truly sorry, I am, Kass. . . . But you understand my position. You knew it, and the nature of my official role, from the beginning. I have my orders directly from the Imperator, and I must adhere to them, superseding all others—even your own."

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