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"The correct term of address is 'Imperial Lord.' You are not to address me as 'Kass'—ever again."

For the first time Nefir flinches. "Understood. . . . My apologies . . . Imperial Lord."

And then he looks at me. "And to you, Gwen—My Imperial Lady, I am bitterly sorry. I—I cannot begin to express how painful—"

I catch my breath, listening to him, to his controlled and lifeless voice, and sudden horrible thoughts begin to race wildly. . . .

Aeson interrupts him. "Painful? No. You cannot, you may not speak of pain, not in my lady's presence. What your intentional, perfectly calculated actions caused is a tragedy. A family tragedy. And since she is now my family, it is my family tragedy also."

"I am sorry . . . so sorry."

I finally find the strength to speak. "What? What did you do, Nefir?" I ask, but somehow I already know the answer.

Nefir looks at me with his fixed eyes, holding his gaze upon me somehow, unwavering. "I . . . followed the Imperial orders."

"What you did was lie to me and to the entire Lark family, both here on Atlantis and on Earth," Aeson says loudly, and his words cut like heavy machetes through the silence. "You stalled their rescue efforts, under sadistic orders from my Father, without telling me the truth. You made daily excuses for over a month, both to the Lark family stranded on the surface and to me, while all along Margot Lark's health deteriorated, until it was too late."

Behind me I can hear Gracie's sharp intake of breath and Gordie making a strange sound.

Not sure if my Dad and George are still present in the same room as Nefir, if they too just heard. . . .

Oh, my God. . . .

"I had to carry out what I was commanded to do," Nefir says softly. This time his eyes are lowered as he speaks. "I had to proceed within the scope of my Imperial orders. My oath remains to the highest office. It cannot be any other way."

"I know," Aeson says, and now there's a tone of mockery in his voice. "I've always known your primary loyalties, but not the pedantic extent of your calculated duplicity."

"And yet, I did not fully inform the Imperator, even now—not until this moment! I held back the information for your sake, in my deepest regard for you, Imperial Lord! You realize that technically I broke my oath by not informing the Imperator ten days ago!"

"Technically you broke your oath many times over," Aeson says. "If only you had trusted me enough to share the truth of your impossible situation, I would have come up with a feasible workaround! Indeed, I would've taken full responsibility for keeping you from carrying out your Imperial orders, and Gwen's mother might still be alive today!"

I find that my pulse is pounding once again, and my ears are ringing with a head rush. "You—you kept my mother from being rescued?" I whisper-croak, putting one palm against my mouth, then putting my other trembling hand over it. "You killed her!"

Gracie cusses, hard, at the same time as she leans forward to hold my shoulders and back, as I shake with wordless agony and fury. "I didn't know this!" she exclaims, beginning to hyperventilate also.

On the other side of the screen, across the universe, Nefir Mekei keeps his gaze lowered, and he has stopped breathing, so motionless he is. . . .

"I take full responsibility," he says at last. And then he looks up at us.

For the first time it is apparent that Nefir's eyes are glistening.

"Yes, you do." Aeson has stirred and is now also leaning forward, closer to the screen. His expression is deadly. "I don't want to see your face again until I command you to be present before me. Continue with your regular Fleet and Imperial duties and report to my Father as scheduled. Now, get me Quoni Enutat. You are dismissed!"

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