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I focus on my breath to keep it regular, trying not to hyperventilate. Meanwhile I silently observe Aeson as he keeps us in the major air traffic lane, with the guard vehicles on both sides and behind us. The golden roofs of the Imperial Palace complex soon come into view, contrasting with metallic fire against the mauve and ebony grandeur of massive structures and splotches of manicured greenery of the park and gardens below.

We come down on the private airfield—indeed, my first memory of being on Atlantis is in this very same spot where I first landed directly from orbit in that fateful shuttle, more than two months ago—a distant memory now, with all the things that have happened in the interim.

It feels like a lifetime. . . .

"Gwen." Aeson glances at me. "Are you okay?"

"No, I'm not," I say in a numb voice. "But I will be, once we're in your Imperial Father's presence."

He takes one hand off the steering panel surface momentarily and places it over mine, squeezing it. His touch is strong and warm, and it gives me a jolt of reassurance.

"I love you . . ." I whisper in reply.

His solemn expression melts.

We get out of the hover car and start walking along the mauve cobblestone-like surface of the airfield toward the park entrance and the garden paths that lead to the main building of the Imperial Palace.

At this early time, except for the uniformed Palace staff and gardeners, few people are about. The ones who walk past us bow to pay their respects before the Imperial Crown Prince and his guards . . . and then they see me. Without hesitation they bow before me also—deeply, with the same level of reverence as they show Kassiopei.

Even knowing enough to expect it, I'm once again stunned.

But Aeson gently guides me onward, giving me no time to show confusion in front of these courtiers and servants.

We enter the grand marble interior front hall, which branches off into myriad palatial chambers, corridors and connecting passages. We take the swift elevators to the top floor and then emerge in the lobby of mauve and cream marble, which serves as the entry hall before the Imperial Quarters, past a number of other elevators along all walls. At the massive double-doorway entrance, a row of Imperial guards equipped with gold staffs salute the Imperial Crown Prince—and myself—and we are immediately admitted within.

Aeson's personal guards must stay behind at this point, due to Imperial Security Protocol, so Aeson and I enter alone.

The antechamber of the Imperial Quarters is a grand hall with a vaulted ceiling and colonnades along the gilded walls, with an informal reception-room throne and other lesser chairs along the back wall next to which are more doors leading deeper into the private areas of the Quarters. All the seats are vacant.

The last time I was here in this very room was that fateful first morning when we had eos bread with the Imperator up on the rooftop pavilion, and I met the whole family, my future in-laws. And now, the same high ranking servant approaches us with a hurried bow, and points to one of the doors. He has an alarmed expression, and before Aeson can ask anything, he says, "Please, this way, my Imperial Lord and Lady, you are expected immediately! Our Imperial Sovereign, the Archaeon Imperator, is in his Red Office, and he will receive you there."

Aeson nods, and we enter a short ornate corridor with a distant arched ceiling. Aeson walks past several other interior doors toward a room in the back, and I follow him with quick steps in order to keep up.

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