CHAPTER FOUR (draft)

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CHAPTER 4

As soon as Quoni ends the call, Aeson turns off all the comm equipment and gives me his full attention.

"Gwen, all right, you need to rest now . . ." he says softly, nearing me and putting his hand on my shoulder to squeeze it. "Let's get you to your own quarters so you can get changed out of that damn uniform and—"

Gordie and Gracie exchange quick looks with Aeson, then Gracie nods and gets up in a hurry. "Yes, Gwenie, let's go get you settled in!"

I release a breath I didn't even know I was holding and nod silently, too shell-shocked to protest or even care what's happening to me now. But there's a tiny hopeful smile on my lips as I face all of them. Dad and George are coming!

"Will they be okay on that fast ship?" I say with a sudden new stab of worry. "And what if Nefir tries to stop them?"

"Quoni is an excellent pilot," Aeson replies with a confident look and a smile of his own. "Don't worry, Nefir has no say in this. Even if he reports to my Father and receives a contrary command, Quoni can claim Star Pilot Corps jurisdiction which, under specific circumstances, takes precedence over the highest authority of the Imperial Fleet. And Captain Hirat Sumbui of AS-1999 will follow the proper command hierarchy."

"So you, as the SPC Commander, can override the Captain, the IF Commander, and the Imperator?" Gordie asks, apparently aware of Aeson's high position in the Star Pilot Corps. "Cool!"

Aeson gives him an amused glance and nods.

It occurs to me, there's so much that I've missed in the lives of my family members—little things such as this. When did Gordie learn about the SPC? Again, my mind starts to dissolve. . . .

Meanwhile I stand up on my own, with Gracie attempting to help by grasping my elbow. "I'm okay, really," I say. "Please . . . tell everyone out there in the living room that—that I'm okay. That I'll see them later, a little later—"

"Of course. They know." Aeson grows serious again. He makes no move to leave and watches me, making sure I can walk on my own. He must be reading my mind, so in tune is he with my emotional state.

"Aeson . . ." I pause, appreciating his hesitation. I realize it must be his subtle way of giving me some much-needed personal space. "Do you mind not coming with us to my room just now? I'm very sorry, im amrevu, but I need to be alone with my sister and brother—for a little while."

"Yes, of course." He inclines his head, watching me gently. His gaze fills me with sweet ease, because, again, he understands completely.

And so, feeling relief for the first time in a long while, I sigh, and follow my siblings passively out the door and through the corridors and levels of the estate to my now familiar bedroom.

* * *

I have no idea how we get there, but at last Gracie opens the door to my spacious bedroom, decorated in warm pearl tones. Two maidservants are inside with the bed made and my bath ready, and I smell the delicate pleasant scent of my favorite bath minerals wafting from the bath suite. . . .

"Thank you, I can manage myself—we, my sister here," I mumble softly, in response to their offer to assist me.

Gracie gives them a meaningful nod also, and the two maids make their formal bows and leave at once.

I move toward the bed, but stop short of plopping down on the pristine covers. I am painfully aware that my Games uniform (still glowing to indicate Champion status) is filthy and encrusted in ocean salt and human blood, and my own personal dirt. . . . Yes, I reek.

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