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The Exile's Return

Aymon did not spend any more time with Halen over the three-day journey back to Emerri. He suspected that it would be better to give the pirate a chance to cool off and get used to his new lot in life. He often inquired about Halen’s status, though, and watched what requests he made of the Whitewater ’s crew (few, except for access to the media library and a chance to use their gym, both of which were granted).

Although Aymon did not speak with Halen, he did pay a visit to his stardrive in the bay of the ship. The bay was empty and dark, and the shuttle sat there alone, lit only by the dim floor lights. Aymon walked up to it with the odd stride required of walking along the walls in microgravity, more of a kick and sweep than anything. In the cavernous bay, his steps and breathing echoed back to him.

The shuttle’s door lifted open with a single press on its keypad; Aymon didn’t even have to use the power to undo the lock.

“What a warm welcome,” he said, pulling himself inside. The door clanged shut behind him.

It was very stupid of him to come speak to Halen’s stardrive, he knew. It had been stupid to leave the stardrive alive. But he was doing it anyway. He kept his power stretched out around himself, an awareness outside his own skin like a second pair of eyes to tell him if something was coming at him from an unexpected direction. There was no obvious menace from the stardrive, aside from the shutting of the door, so Aymon took his time investigating the shuttle.

The first thing he noticed was the smell, before his eyes adjusted to the new dimness inside. It was stale and human, the concentrated version of the odor that every ship developed. This one must have been distinctly Halen’s, since it seemed likely that he was the only one who used the shuttle. It was the sour smell of old sweat, and by the time that Aymon had processed it, he could see in the dimness enough to look around and find a light.

The interior felt both too large and too small. Everything was scaled inappropriately, meant for giants, but the shuttle was as cramped as it possibly could be. Halen could probably float fully spread out in only one or two orientations. The pilot’s seat was well worn, and the console with all the controls had wires dangling out of it, and notes taped to its surface in what Aymon assumed was Halen’s blocky handwriting. Tied to every wall of the shuttle were plastic boxes full of supplies. Out of idle curiosity, Aymon opened one and found dried rations, neatly stacked. It all seemed well kept and organized, if very lived in.

He settled himself into the pilot’s seat, crossing his legs. The bucket seat was far too large for him, and without gravity there was nothing to press him down into it, but he arranged himself like he was sitting on a throne anyway. He spun the chair around so that he could face the stardrive itself, the quietly whirring machinery in the back of the shuttle. He looked at it, though there was nothing to see— the box that contained the brain had an opaque metal shell.

“How long would all of these rations last, if you left here today?” Aymon asked aloud.

He didn’t know if he should expect an answer, but he got one. The stardrive used the power to vibrate the air as if there was someone speaking directly in his ear. “Two months,” it said.

The stardrive’s voice was approximately the same pitch as Halen’s, but had none of its richness or variation. Still, it made Aymon smile, lips curling to reveal his teeth.

“Longer, if he had to,” the stardrive added.

“I hope you don’t intend to run. Even if you didn’t stop for two months, I think I would be able to find you again.”

“It would be difficult to get him out of here alive,” the stardrive pointed out.

“But you would be stupid to tell me if you were planning to try to run.”

There was silence from the drive. Although it was more garrulous than Halen was, that didn’t mean that it was exactly chatty.

“I assume you’ve been speaking with your maker?” Aymon asked.

There was no answer.

“Even if he doesn’t have the power at the moment, you certainly have enough to reach from here to his quarters and speak to him, and hear what he says back. I don’t think I’m overestimating you, based on what I’ve seen.”

Still silence.

“I would ask you what you think, but I doubt I would get an answer. A pity.”

“I think that he’ll kill you.”

“I’m sure he’ll try,” Aymon said. Idly, he picked up a half-filled water bottle that was velcroed to the side of the pilot’s chair and flipped it around in his hand, watching the glob of water splash and churn in the microgravity. “I don’t think he’ll succeed.”

“You don’t know what he’s capable of.”

“Tell me,” Aymon said. “I’m eager to know.”

Silence again.

“Well, I’ll find out.” He used the power to twirl the water bottle around on the tip of his finger. “I’m surprised you haven’t tried to kill me yet. You have all your power.”

This time, Aymon waited for the stardrive to respond. “If I did, he would die.”

“See,” Aymon began, “I understand him being protective of you. You’re his ticket out of here, if he tries to run. But I don’t understand you being protective of him.” He stretched out his power towards the stardrive in the box. With that extra sense, he gathered information about the stardrive’s construction, his power showing him the brain drifting there in its warm pool. He tried not to be overly repulsed by it, but it nevertheless made his skin crawl. “He made you like this.”

“I made my peace with that,” the stardrive said.

“How?” Aymon asked. “I’m curious.”

“None of your concern.”

“You might be surprised,” Aymon said. “It may someday be.”

“Is this what you came here to ask?”

“No,” Aymon said. “I was just eager to meet you properly.”

“Why?”

Aymon tilted his head. “When I was hunting your maker, I first chased down one of the ships that had another of his drives on board. The way that drive behaved was what made me interested enough in your maker to keep him alive. I came to see if there were any differences between you and it.”

The stardrive was silent.

“Aren’t you curious about what it was that made me so interested?”

“No.” The voice was very mechanical and flat. Aymon still doubted that was the truth.

“How long have you been installed in this shuttle?” Aymon asked, switching the subject. “I’ve been wondering about what caused you to be off the Bluebeetle . I saw that all the cloning was done on board the ship, but did you go alone to sell them? I feel like it would be stupid to go alone, but maybe you had your reasons.”

“Why does it matter to you?”

“It doesn’t. I’m making conversation.”

“You like to hear your own voice.”

“He said the same thing.”

After a moment, the stardrive said, “He’s smarter than you are.”

“That may well be. He’s self taught, and learned everything necessary to make you. I don’t discount clear talent,” Aymon said. “That just means he might be useful to me.”

After a moment, the stardrive said, “We were on the shuttle alone because he was creating me. The Bluebeetle left him in empty space.”

“Good timing. He got very lucky,” Aymon said. “To be off the ship, and you with him.”

“Did he?” the drive asked. There was a momentary pause, in which Aymon knew the drive was studying him. “I could kill you now, and this ship with you. All I would have to do would be to jump without a destination in mind. There would be nothing left.”

“But you didn’t, and you won’t.” He put the water bottle back. “I would ask why, but I’m certain you won’t tell me. Regardless, I’m tired of threats with nothing behind them.”

“Nothing?” the drive asked. Involuntarily, every muscle in Aymon’s body seized up as the stardrive’s power crashed over him like a great wave. It was good at this, which shouldn’t have surprised Aymon. He could have fought it with his own power and freed himself easily, but he didn’t. The drive was not going to kill him, and he was interested in seeing just how far it would go. He doubted it would do any physical damage either, so it would be something deliciously psychological. Aymon’s heart beat faster.

He couldn’t breathe— the drive wasn’t letting him.

He would have smiled if he had any control over his facial muscles. The sensation was potent: a churning mixture of physiological fear and an upside down trust. All Aymon had to do was feel it, allow it to happen to the vessel of his body.

If he had wanted to free himself from the stardrive’s grip, he would have had to do it quickly, before his thoughts began to grey out. But Aymon waited until he lost the ability to summon the concentration to use the power, quelling his own instinct to struggle, and his oxygen-starved mind felt something close to elation as that turning point was crossed.

When Aymon regained consciousness with a violent twitch, some unknown time later, though it likely wasn’t more than a few seconds after passing out, he found he had control over his body again, and the door of the shuttle was open, letting in the cold and (relatively) fresh air of the bay.

“Get out,” the drive said.

“Done already?” Aymon asked.

There was no response, so Aymon stretched, loosening all the muscles that had been held stiff, then got out of the chair and floated towards the exit.

“Oh,” Aymon said before he left the shuttle, “I did mean to ask— when we return to Emerri, what would you prefer we do with you?”

He hadn’t really expected an answer, and he didn’t get one.

“Well, think about it,” Aymon said. When he finally pulled himself out of the shuttle, the door slammed shut narrowly behind him with a clang that echoed through the bay.

 


 

The return to Emerri, despite how much Aymon had built it up in his head, was anticlimactic. He hadn’t been expecting effusive warmth from his master, but he expected at least something other than radio silence in the time between when they jumped in to the system and actually arrived at the planet, docking at the top of the elevator. Obra’s backlog of letters was awaiting him as soon as the first data dump arrived over the slow radio, and so Aymon had at least that to entertain himself with over the long elevator journey down to the surface.

Most of the Whitewater ’s crew were remaining on board, so it was only Aymon’s much smaller personal staff that were accompanying him back to the surface. This put him in very close quarters with Halen, in the lounge on the elevator that had been reserved for Aymon’s use.

The lounge was a nice space, for all that it couldn’t disguise its true nature as a vehicle. The plush chairs were firmly bolted to the ground, and there were signs everywhere reminding people to make use of the handrails to assist with walking in the constantly shifting gravity of their descent.

Aymon spent most of the ride down trying and failing to compose a letter to Herrault. As Obra had said, he needed the first overtures of an apology, but Aymon was not sorry for what he had done to Frae, and in fact had let it slip so thoroughly from his mind that he didn’t care about it at all. His punishment had been tedious, but he glanced across the lounge at Halen, standing near the windows with his hands behind his broad back, and considered that perhaps it had been worth it despite his master’s intentions. Hours of staring at a blank message got him nowhere, and so Aymon eventually gave up on trying to say something to Herrault, and fell asleep in his chair.

When Aymon awoke at the end of the long trip, shaken politely awake by one of his staff, he found that Halen had barely moved during the journey. He must have spent the whole trip staring at the planet as it came closer and closer to them, resolving in blues and greens and whites in ever finer detail. As his staff bustled around and the loudspeakers announced the procedure for disembarking, Aymon wandered over to Halen, who was now seated and looking out the window, though the view was dark and obscured: it was late afternoon on this part of Emerri, but black clouds covered the sky, and heavy rain slashed down and covered the windows in sheets of water, reducing visibility to nothing.

“Have you ever been to Emerri?” Aymon asked.

Halen, who hadn’t noticed him come over, jerked his head up to look at him. “I’ve never been on a planet at all.”

“I’m pleased to provide you with the opportunity.”

Halen turned away from him.

“This is the equator, so it’s warm,” he said. “But it will be fall in Yora, the capital, where Stonecourt is. I missed the best part of the year, out in space.” He sat down on the armrest of Halen’s chair, half expecting to be shoved off, but Halen just ignored him. “I like the summer. I feel like winter is like being in space, because you have to spend so much time indoors. You might like Yora. It’s a very pretty city.” He knew Halen was listening, so he continued. “We’ll stay the night here, and fly north tomorrow. It’s giving a chance for housing to be arranged for you, at the very least.” The idea flashed into his mind of installing Halen in Jalena’s empty apartment, but that fleeting thought made the wound of her death shockingly fresh again, and he had to stop speaking, his hands skittering across the fabric of his cassock on his knees.

Halen noticed his sudden tension, or at least his sudden silence, and looked over at him.

He composed himself. “When we get to Yora, I think you and I should both pay a visit to the Emperor, before we see my master, First Herrault.”

“Fine.”

“That’s a rare privilege,” Aymon said. “Almost no one gets to meet the Emperor.”

Halen went back to ignoring him.

“In any event, once we’ve spoken to the Emperor, I’m sure you will be allowed to have your power back. So you may look forward to that, if nothing else. You’re rather useless to me without it.”

The silence between them was punctuated with squawking of the intercom, telling them to disembark. Aymon stood. “Let’s go.”

It seemed to take extra effort for Halen to stand, burdened now by Emerri’s full gravity, a little more than standard. The Whitewater had not been running its rings at full standard, and Aymon had no idea what pirate ships usually used. Aymon knew what to expect, living on Emerri for many years, but it would still take a day or so to fully adjust.

Aymon and his entourage walked out of the elevator car and through the spaceport. He ignored the stares of the normal travelers in the port. It had been a long time since he had last used his public-facing posture, and he pulled it around himself like a cape: stiffening his spine, flattening his expression, walking swiftly, his gaze touching people without acknowledging them.

It was still torrentially raining outside the spaceport, and there was a long walk across an uncovered plaza before they would reach the line of cars waiting to take them to the hotel. In better weather, vendors would be set up in rows of carts along the edges of the bricked walkway, between the skinny trees and landscaping, but now it was barren and empty, with the wind driving the palm fronds into a shaking frenzy, and the puddles bubbling with every drop that hit them. To spare everyone from getting wet, Aymon used the power to redirect the rain around their group, sending it down in a shimmering curtain a meter or so away from the outermost members of his guard as they stepped out. The air was warm and salty from the nearby ocean, and the rain made everything smell rich and alive.

Halen looked up into the dark sky, taking strange, deep breaths. His footing was unsure on the wet and uneven ground. As the rest of the group hurried towards the waiting cars, Halen turned and plodded off to the side, towards one of the palm trees. He wasn’t going anywhere fast, it seemed harmless, and so Aymon extended his rain barrier to cover him.

Halen stopped at the edge of the brick area, just before the road, and stretched out his long arm to push through the curtain of water and cup the falling raindrops in his hand. Aymon ordered the rest of the group to get in the cars (which they did reluctantly) and walked towards Halen, who was ignoring him and looking up at the sky.

Lighting flashed overhead, and Halen jumped. Less than a second later, the thunder rolled across them, shaking the ground. Halen hadn’t withdrawn his hand from the curtain of water, and was still straining to catch as many raindrops as he could, letting them run down his outstretched arm under his sleeve. He looked at Aymon, standing a few feet away from him.

On a whim, Aymon dropped his power completely. The rain dumped down on top of them both, freezing cold. His hair stuck to his skin; he could barely see through the drops. Halen’s shirt clung to him. He tipped his head back into it, the rain slicking down his face.

The lightning stabbed the sky again, and the roar of thunder was near-simultaneous.

“Welcome to Emerri,” Aymon said.

He couldn’t tell what Halen was thinking, but after a moment, he shook himself like a dog and silently headed for the car.

 


 

After making it out of the spaceport, the process of getting situated in the hotel, from a security standpoint— making sure Halen’s room was alarmed in case he decided to leave, and making sure that Aymon’s room had the standard protections he usually traveled with— was so tedious that even though Aymon had dozed on the elevator, he was exhausted by the time he actually got to his room alone. For this reason, Aymon and Halen didn’t have dinner together.

Aymon ordered delivery from a restaurant he liked nearby, and had some sent to Halen’s room, which was down the hall from his. His guard team did not ask for any explanation for his reclusiveness, and Aymon would have been disinclined to give one, even if they had. A feeling of dread was pooling in his stomach about his return to the capitol, and he wanted to spend the evening meditating, in the hopes that it would clear his mind.

He had never liked meditating as a child, but he could see its uses now. The sensation it gave of separation from his body was usually the opposite of what he wanted to feel, but it came with the territory. Aymon went deep inside the meditative trance, sitting cross legged on his hotel bed in only his underwear, the lights dimmed to almost nothing. He sorted his thoughts into threads: Obra, First Herrault, Halen, the Emperor, and smaller ones for everything else. Contemplating them in this detached way let him see at least how raw all the edges of his emotions were. It wasn’t like there was a problem with Obra that could be solved, but thinking about seeing them in person again felt unpleasant anyway.

In the trance, he was unaware of the passage of time. If he had needed to be somewhere, he would have set an alarm to rouse him from his meditation at the appropriate hour. As it was, it was an alarm that shook him out of it, but it wasn’t one that he had set. His phone on the nightstand blipped urgently, and Aymon reached for it as soon as he had control over all his limbs.

A window in Halen’s room had been opened, and the security system was alerting him to it, in case he was attempting to shimmy out from the third floor to the ground. Aymon silenced the alarm and sent a message to the security team not to interfere. He would deal with it.

He pulled his wrinkled cassock on over his head, then jogged out of his room, barefoot, to Halen’s. The lock on Halen’s door opened with a mere thought, and he entered the room alert, looking directly across it at the open window.

Halen wasn’t quite sticking his whole body out the window, but he nearly was. He had dragged the bed over to the wall so that he could lay with one arm dangling outside, with his head resting on his arm. All the too-small chairs were discarded in a corner.

When he heard the door open behind him, Halen pulled himself back in and sat bolt upright, turning to look at Aymon.

“I came to make sure you weren’t going to attempt to climb out and escape,” Aymon said. “I see that you’re only tempting falling out, which would be equally stupid. It’s three stories to the ground.”

“Where would I go?” Halen asked.

“I couldn’t possibly say,” Aymon said. “At least put the screen back down. You’re going to let every bug in here.” There were already moths fluttering around the overhead light, and the window had only been open a few minutes, at most. It had stopped raining a while ago, but the night air that was coming in was thick and muggy, feeling like a sludgy wall where it met the cool air conditioning.

With visible reluctance, Halen pulled the screen back down. “Was that all?” he asked.

Aymon finally took note of the time. It was almost three in the morning. “What are you doing awake?” he asked.

“I couldn’t sleep, so I was reading.” There was a tablet discarded next to Halen amidst the rumpled sheets on the bed.

“You should try to sleep. Tomorrow will be a long day.”

Halen stared at him silently.

“What?” Aymon asked.

“I just told you that I couldn’t.”

“You would eventually if you just lay there.”

“It’s going to take me a long time to get used to this gravity,” Halen said after a second. “That makes it hard. And I don’t want any more drugs, so don’t suggest them.”

That was the longest string of words that Aymon had heard him say to date. His medication was probably wearing off.

“Lay down,” Aymon said.

“What?”

“Lay down. On the bed.”

Halen just stared at Aymon for a long second, and then did, slowly, lowering himself down, not looking away. Aymon came towards him.

“Close your eyes,” he said, standing at the edge of the bed.

“Why?”

“I’m going to put you to sleep,” Aymon said.

Halen’s stare finally broke when he obeyed, tipping his head back on the pillow and closing his eyes. Aymon couldn’t reach him from the edge of the bed standing, so had to sit down on it, feeling like he was falling into Halen’s gravity well, the dent he made in the mattress, as he did. Halen’s breathing was long and steady.

Aymon reached towards his head. Halen must have felt the motion through the air or the shifting of the mattress, because without opening his eyes, he grabbed Aymon’s wrist before he could touch his head. His grip was hard, just on the edge of painful, and his fingers wrapped all the way around Aymon’s arm with room to spare.

“Or you can lay here for the next five hours without sleeping,” Aymon said, keeping his voice mild and making no attempt to pull his hand from Halen’s grip.

Halen dropped his hand. Aymon’s wrist still felt the echo of the touch, but he reached towards Halen and laid his hand on his forehead, brushing some of his wispy hair back. This close, he could see the pores on Halen’s face, the stubble of his beard, the dry cracks of his lips. His forehead was cool and damp, maybe with the moisture coming in from the window.

“Do it, or don’t,” Halen said.

For that, Aymon was slow in pulling his power up and pressing it through Halen’s body. There was the familiar barrier when using the power on another person, but he was a little surprised to find it was only the old wall between the self and the other, and not the resistance that came from using force on the unwilling; Halen was not fighting him, though every muscle of his was tensed. With a gentleness that he hadn’t used in many months, one that he had thought he had forgotten, Aymon’s power relaxed Halen’s entire body at once.

“Oh—” Halen said, but didn’t finish the thought, because Aymon’s power tripped the wire in his brain that knocked him into sleep.

Aymon watched Halen for a second to be sure that his work had stuck and that he wouldn’t wake back up, then withdrew his sweaty hand and wiped it on his cassock. He left the window open when he headed out of the room.

 


 

Although Aymon hadn’t told Obra when or how he would be returning to the capitol, they met him at the airport anyway. Not on the tarmac this time, but outside the private rear entrance, where the cars were waiting. Obra was alone outside of the vehicles, leaning casually on the lead car in the line, their braided black hair glinting in the waning afternoon sunlight. They didn’t call out to Aymon, nor run up to him, but just waited for him to walk the stretch of pavement between the sliding doors and the cars. It felt like it took a million years to cross the distance.

“So,” they said, “the banished son returns.”

“Are all my trespasses forgiven?” Aymon asked. He tried to stand relaxed in front of them, his hands loosely at his sides, but he was sure he failed.

“I don’t think it works like that.” But Obra reached out and hugged him anyway, like they hadn’t since the nights they clung together before Jalena’s funeral.

You cut your hair, Obra said through the power. The words carried an undercurrent of strained regret.

You don’t like it? Aymon asked.

Detest it , they said, then pulled away from him. Aymon was reluctant to let go, but Obra slithered out of his arms. “Get in the car,” they said aloud, walking around the front to the driver’s seat. Obra had not lost their love of driving in the months that Aymon had been away. Trusting them to drive rather than one of his staff was the same pleasure it had always been.

Aymon looked behind himself at Halen and the rest of his entourage, who were now beginning to file towards the rest of the vehicles. “Halen, with me,” Aymon said.

Obra raised an eyebrow at that. Aymon sat in the front passenger seat, and Halen did his best to sit in the back. His instinct was to buckle himself, but found that the seatbelt was too small to be useful, especially as he needed to sit with his legs sideways.

Obra waited until all the doors were closed before they asked, “And who am I chauffeuring now?”

“My renegade stardrive maker,” Aymon said.

In the rearview, Aymon saw Halen’s lips twitch, halfway to forming a protest, but he restrained himself.

“I see,” Obra said. “Or I don’t. Either way. I hope he’s not planning to kill me while I drive.”

“His name is Halen, and he’s on suppressants. I’m not that stupid.”

“Well, don’t garotte me either. You have a family name?” Obra asked. There was a moment of silence, and Aymon realized he didn’t actually know. He had never bothered to ask.

“No,” Halen said.

“Ah. I’m Obra Zacks.” They started the car and signaled to the security vehicle behind them to go ahead. The line of cars organized themselves and started off out of the parking lot and towards the roads and city. “I’m First Herrault’s other apprentice, if that wasn’t obvious. I don’t know how much Aymon bothered to tell you.”

Aymon had grown used to the stiff silences between himself and Halen. But the one that stretched between the three of them in the car was not just stiff, it was deeply uncomfortable.

“We’re going to see the Emperor before we see Herrault,” Aymon said.

“Does she know about him?” Obra asked, jerking their head behind themself at Halen.

“I reported that the stardrive maker was taken into custody alive.”

“So, no.”

“No,” Aymon agreed. “Thus, the Emperor.”

“What are you looking to get out of that?”

Aymon didn’t have a good answer to that question. “Not much.”

Obra looked at Halen in the rearview. “I hope he hasn’t made you any promises that he can’t keep.”

“Are you a liar, Aymon?” Halen asked. He was watching the streets outside the car with a fascination that he couldn’t quite disguise, so his question held less menace than it could.

“Yes,” Aymon said.

Obra half laughed. “Only to people he doesn’t like,” they said to Halen.

Aymon frowned at that, and changed the subject. “I read your letters, but how has life really been around here?”

“The new normal,” Obra said. “Which is to say, I’m surviving.”

“Do you still want to banish yourself to the far reaches of space?”

Obra didn’t respond until they came to the next red light. “If Herrault sent me to the front, I wouldn’t complain. And she might. Things are a mess, from what I can tell.”

“Eager to get away from me, still.”

“Of course. It’s crowded in the capital with both of us.”

“It didn’t used to be,” Aymon said.

Obra pressed the accelerator a little too hard, sending the car skidding forward. Halen’s knees slammed into the back of Aymon’s seat.

“Are you going to ask Herrault to forgive you?” Obra asked.

“If you think it will make a difference.”

“You should.”

“I am a liar, but with her, I’m not a very good one.”

“At least tell her you won’t do it again, and you’re ready to return to work. If you can’t bring yourself to grovel, that will have to be enough.”

“Fine.”

“Can I make an observation?”

“If you must.”

“Playing the Emperor against her is not going to earn you any points.”

Aymon shrugged. “We’ll see.”

“Dig your own grave, then.”

“I will.”

The remainder of the trip to Stonecourt was no less tense. Watching Halen’s expression in the mirror, he seemed both relieved and disappointed to be back indoors, even in an underground garage.

“The Emperor is further underground,” Aymon said. “In case you were wondering.”

Halen said nothing.

“While you go put your scheme into action,” Obra said, “I will go make sure Herrault doesn’t come storming after you for at least a minute.”

“Appreciate it,” Aymon said. “Good to know you’ve still got my back.”

“Somebody’s got to, because you’re certainly not looking out for yourself.” They waved over their shoulder and headed towards the elevator at the end of the parking lot that would bring them up into the aboveground portion of Stonecourt.

Instead of leading Halen up, there was a set of security double doors that he swiped open with his keycard, leading into a long hallway in one of the sub-levels of the building. The walls were cold stone, carved with unnatural precision into the bedrock. Not in this hallway, but in others, there were places where tiny fossils could be seen in the rocks, lifeforms that were long-dead before humanity settled this planet, wiped out completely by the cataclysmic event that had formed Emerri’s two moons. This site in particular had been chosen to build the capitol building because of the presence of fossils in the rock; it was reminiscent of the Red King’s palace in the Book of Songs .

It was a surprisingly long walk through winding hallways to reach the elevator that would take them down to the correct sublevel. They walked in silence, their footsteps clicking along the stone floor. Aymon could tell that Halen was forming a mental map of the underbelly of Stonecourt already.

Further down, there was a much more rigorous security checkpoint, and Aymon had to explain Halen’s presence to a guard in order for him to be allowed through. Then there was a long tunnel, which they rode through on an electric cart.

“It’s meant to survive almost any attack,” Aymon said. “This is the most secure place in the universe.” It amused Aymon to think that Halen was probably categorizing ways to destroy it.

At the end of the tunnel was another, much heavier set of guarded doors. The Emperor’s suite.

They entered.

The antechamber was relatively simple. Its only furniture were a few plush chairs meant for anyone waiting on an audience. The walls were plain dark wood panels, and the overhead lighting was warm and muted. There was no sound in the room, and even footsteps were cushioned by the plush red carpet, which was completely unworn. In the antechamber, there was nothing to do but think and wait to be called. On the far side of the room from where they had entered, there was a single, plain door.

Aymon kept his voice low, though he couldn’t have said why. “Sit,” he said. “The Emperor will call us in when it’s our turn.”

Halen sat, then looked at the door. “Is there someone in there now?”

“No.” Aymon sat as well.

He doubted that Halen could feel the growing pressure in the room, the press of the Emperor’s mind on his. Aymon tried to relax, but that was impossible. He took refuge in Halen’s gaze, focusing on the way that Halen stared at him, rather than the way he could feel the Emperor silently picking him apart, peeling through every layer of his mind, reading every memory and thought. Aymon could feel glimpses of the Emperor’s search, fleeting images that surfaced and then receded, too fast to process. This went on for some time, until the Emperor was satisfied with knowing everything that there was to know about Aymon.

The door at the other end of the room swung open on silent hinges, accompanied by a pull in Aymon’s chest, urging him out of his seat. Under his own power, for now, but he wouldn’t have had a choice if he didn’t walk quickly. Aymon stood, nodded once at Halen, and then entered the Emperor’s audience chamber.

The door closed behind him.

It was dark inside, completely, save for one spotlight that illuminated a circle on the floor. Aymon knew the procedure, and he stood beneath the harsh light. It was cold in here.

So, Our wandering child has returned home , the Emperor said, directly into Aymon’s mind.

The Emperor could hear his every thought, but it felt more natural to respond aloud. “I have.”

And why?

“If I was supposed to be banished forever, I would have been.” A petulant urge to cross his arms, which he resisted. “I did what was asked of me, and it took long enough. Honor has been satisfied.”

And yet, here you are, Our little Aymon. Making the same mistakes.

“I don’t make the same mistakes twice.” He did lift his chin, then shifted uncomfortably as the Emperor did not respond for a long time.

Perhaps because you do not yet see this as a mistake.

“And you do?”

We see well enough. You should have first gone to your master. Our little Caron would have allowed you to keep your folly.

“I would prefer to ask you, since—”

Do not lie to Us, Aymon. We see your heart.

Aymon was silent.

You reject her authority over you, because you feel she rejects responsibility towards you. We understand it well, though you are wrong about Our Caron.

“Am I?” Aymon asked, bitterness sneaking into his voice.

We shall not speak her mind to you, nor yours to her. This is a matter between master and apprentice, and We have no desire to interfere in those worldly affairs now. If she chooses to punish you for subverting her authority once again, that is her responsibility. She may, she may not. We suspect she will not.

“How kind of her.”

No, the Emperor said. It would be pragmatism from Our little Caron. You will receive a different punishment from Us.

“For what?” Aymon asked, trying not to let the affront creep into his voice. He hated feeling like a child before the Emperor.

For your grave mistake.

“Halen?” Aymon asked. “Don’t kill him, if you’re going to punish me for this. I did make him a promise.”

That man will be your death, the Emperor said.

“I don’t think he’ll be able to kill me,” Aymon said. “He’ll try, but I don’t think he’ll succeed.”

That is not what We said.

Aymon pursed his lips. He hated the Emperor’s penchant for the cryptic.

These things are clearer in retrospect. We have had much time to reflect.

“What things?”

Aymon felt a ghostly touch on his cheek. You do not make the same mistake twice, but We do. This is Our Caron’s folly, and Brunot’s before her…”

“Are you going to kill Halen or not?” Aymon asked.

You may keep him, the Emperor said, and there was a distinctly cutting, dismissive tone to the thought. Patience, little Aymon, is a virtue that you could stand to learn.

“What is my punishment, then, if you’re so convinced I’m making a grave error, and are going to allow me to continue?”

When Our Caron made her error, the punishment was the crime. For you…

Aymon waited.

The same, perhaps. You truly trust that this man will not kill you. May your trust bear fruit.

Aymon did not have time to wonder what the Emperor meant by that, because he felt the Emperor searching through his brain, peeling things apart, not gently. After just a moment, there was the sensation of something snapping, like stepping on a piece of rotted wood and falling directly through a hole that he hadn’t been cognizant of. It was like a sudden sense that he hadn’t known he had was gone, and its absence was felt keenly.

Your power shall be returned to you at a time that befits Us , the Emperor said, leaving no room for argument. Aymon tried to argue anyway.

“Halen— he will kill me.” He tried to stifle the sudden fear, turn it into anger. “If he knows I’m defenseless.”

Then do not let him know, little Aymon. Or trust him. It is your choice.

The Emperor’s amusement was cruel.

You may go. Send him to Us. We wish to speak with him.

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A note from javert

farewell kicks aymon out of the shuttle b/c they're both disgusted by aymon's whole schtick and by feeling kinda :| about realizing that their own first impulse to jump to is torturing people. poor farewell. they're having a very rough time of it

we're now finally past the point of "things that i kinda covered in og itsoh" whoo. incredible that i managed to take 12 chapters to communicate things that i covered in 3 in the original... well. this is meant to stand alone and the original 'home of the past' chapters had the entire structure of itsoh preceding them to hold them up worldbuilding wise haha. idk my pacing might be not ideal still.

but i'm looking forward to writing new things! despite the struggle that these recent times have been. probably only one more chapter before i put this story back on mini-hiatus and write a chunk of chapters for Serpent's Mouth, Serpent's Teeth

thank you very very much to em for the beta read!

you can find me on tumblr @ javert , on twitter @ natsinator , @ gayspaceopera.carrd.co , and on discord https://discord.gg/2fu49B28nu


About the author

javert

Bio: hi I'm noodle, I studied aeronautical engineering in college, then I taught high school math. now I'm [redacted] and [remainder of message lost].

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