Hail waited alone in the dim antechamber before the Emperor’s office, or before whatever was behind the door that Aymon had vanished into. He couldn’t hear any voices coming through, no matter how much he strained his ears over the soft whooshing of the air filters, so he had no idea what to expect.
This room, deep underground, reminded him of being on a ship. The faint breeze of air was antiseptic smelling, harshly filtered. The furniture and carpet almost were like that of Captain Winding’s office and private rooms aboard the Bluebeetle , but those rooms had been lived in and worn by generations of his family, and were smaller, besides. These reminiscences slipped through his mind without his attention lighting on them for much longer than an instant, and so he was spared the misery that might have accompanied them if he had dwelled. There were few blessings that the power-suppressing drug provided, but the muting of emotions (his own and others’) was perhaps one of them.
Another side effect was the loss of his normal keen sense of time. Hail found himself staring into space, mind utterly blank. He had no idea how long Aymon spent in his audience with the Emperor.
The door finally swung open, and Aymon emerged. He was paler than he had been upon entering the Emperor’s chamber, and he avoided meeting Hail’s eyes. This, more than anything, broke through the haze that clouded his thoughts. Aymon had not refrained from openly staring at Hail in the past, and the fact that he did so now made him wonder if Aymon was feeling guilt for the first time. Not about the Bluebeetle , but about whatever was awaiting Hail in the next room.
Hail stood from his seat slowly, Emerri’s gravity fighting him. He took the few steps towards Aymon, who did not manage to stifle a flinch completely. Even with his mind and senses muted, Hail remained an acute observer of body language.
“The Emperor wishes to see you,” Aymon said, trying to step away from Hail. But Hail caught his arm, ungently, and Aymon froze beneath his touch.
“Am I going in there to meet my death?”
“If the Emperor wanted you dead, you would already be dead,” Aymon said. “Go.”
He made no attempt to pull himself away, but Hail let him go after a moment and walked slowly towards the Emperor’s inner sanctum.
The door closed behind him with a soft click, and he found himself in a dark room, lit only by a single spotlight in the center. From the sound of his footsteps on the stone echoing back to him, he could tell that the room was not very large, maybe five meters from wall to wall at the most. He didn’t want to step into the spotlight, so he didn’t, remaining in the darkness near the door.
Do you think you can hide from Us? a voice asked, directly in his mind. It was so similar to the way that Farewell spoke to him that Hail was startled.
I wasn’t thinking anything, Hail responded in kind. He wasn’t sure if the message was heard, since he lacked power to actively transmit, and he lacked the familiarity of the connection that he had with Farewell, but he had the sense that he was understood.
It is no matter, the voice said. The spotlight in the center of the room turned off, leaving Hail in a familiar, quiet darkness. The comparison to your little Farewell is apt, in a way.
Aymon told you about him?
Our little Aymon need not tell Us anything. We know what he knows. We know what you know, as well.
The other mind’s touch was surgically delicate, unlike Farewell’s clumsy fumbling, but Hail’s memories lifted themselves to the forefront of his mind, brief flashes of his time between leaving the Bluebeetle and the present. It was a deep invasion of his privacy, but he had no way to resist it. One more thing he was forced to submit to, for now. The detached and clinical feeling of the inspection was at least better than the gross curiosity and search for spectacle that he suspected Aymon would have exercised. He would not submit to that.
You need not submit to anything, little one, the mind said, then withdrew. Least of all to Our Aymon.
There was a strange feeling in Hail’s body, a tingling in his fingers and toes, and a force at the base of his skull. Not painful, but itchy and odd. What are you doing? he asked.
But as the sensation faded, he felt his power return to him, and his mind was clear for the first time in days. It would have been a relief if it had not been accompanied by a realization of an intense psychic pressure. The feeling of the other mind bearing down on him was more powerful and larger than he was by at least a hundred times, maybe more.
Now that his power was under his control once again, he could sense what this mind was. He reached out blindly, passing through the back wall of the room, and saw the Emperor in full. Two long rows of people stretched out down a hallway, lining it on either side. All of their bodies hung suspended in a complex web of machinery not unlike that which housed Farewell, their minds connected to one another through the power, perhaps permanently.
Hail felt nauseous, looking at it. It was worse than the way he had made Farewell, he was sure of it. Farewell retained his own mind, his own self, for all that his body was the metal shell of his shuttle. Each of these men and women had lost themselves completely, forever.
Who— he began to ask.
It is the privilege of Our Voices to become one of Us, when they have finished serving Us. Our Caron will join Us someday, as will Our Aymon or Our Obra, whichever one of them succeeds Caron. The Emperor’s mental tone changed, quoting the theology. As it is written, ‘ In the last days, the servant equals the master.’
Hail couldn’t imagine it. Aymon was many things: cruel, aloof, and self-obsessed. It seemed incomprehensible that he would ever willingly give himself up to join a formless mass.
He will, the Emperor said. In his appointed time. Hail could feel the Emperor’s attention on him. You cling to life, little Hail-and-Farewell, yet at one point you found it more gentle to die. There will come a day of reckoning for him, as well.
With a nudge in the power, the Emperor forced Hail’s attention away from the bodies in the hallway.
Enough, they said. It is a rare guest who is allowed to understand Us as We are. But We thought it appropriate, as Our little Aymon favors you. Consider it a gift, and a warning.
Hail stayed silent. He had decided days ago that this was the safest thing to do in most situations. Even if he had a biting comment about Aymon’s favor, it wouldn’t have done him any good to deliver it. This Emperor could kill him with a thought, and even with his power, he would be powerless to resist.
Yes, the Emperor said. We could. And even when you step outside this room, we can. No matter where you go on Emerri, We can see all that you do, hear all that you say, and take action should We be required to. If you kill Our little Aymon, you will die.
Hail couldn’t help himself. Very well.
The Emperor’s amusement was warm, if condescending. You have a determination that’s served you, Hail-and-Farewell. Let it continue to do so, rather than dooming you.
Why would you care if I live or die? You sent him to kill me.
If you had been born under Our care, in Our Empire, you might have become one of Us, some day. You have a temperament that is well suited for this work. It would be a shame to lose someone kin to Us, in that way.
Hail knew, as surely as he breathed, that the Emperor was lying, though he couldn’t have imagined why.
An amused mental smile from the Emperor. Perhaps.
What do you expect me to do? Hail asked, more of an accusation than a request for advice. You think I’ll serve him without ever taking revenge?
You may choose to leave, or you may choose to stay. If you leave, We shall take your power from you permanently. It would be a simple matter.
And if I stay?
Someday, perhaps, he will trust you enough to take you out of Our reach. Off Emerri, Our physical power is limited. If you took your revenge there, you might yet live. This may be enough to persuade you to stay.
To be his servant.
Perhaps. You and he are not unalike in that. Little Aymon is an instrument for his master Caron, as Our Caron is an instrument for the Empire, Our Voice. Another mental smile from the Emperor. Your little Farewell understands what it is to be an instrument of someone else’s will. Take comfort in the knowledge that you too have the strength that requires.
Hail frowned. There was something that the Emperor was not saying. Some kind of hidden amusement that he couldn’t pick apart in the chorused mental voice.
Will you stay? the Emperor asked.
Why would you let me ever have the opportunity to kill him?
You would do Us a service. If Our Aymon is too weak, it would serve Us to be rid of him. He is prone to mistakes. He should take care not to make too many. Our Obra would serve Us just as well, or better. They have made fewer errors, though this may mean that they have not had a chance to learn during the appointed hours for learning. We only require one Voice.
This, too, was a lie, but only partially. The Emperor’s pragmatic callousness shone through.
Does he understand that you don’t care if I kill him?
He understands very well. More amusement from the Emperor. How kind of you to think one must play this game fairly, with everyone knowing the cards placed in the deck.
Will you stay, little one? the Emperor asked again.
He weighed it in his mind, taking his time, now that he was able to think clearly. The idea of losing his power, and his chance at revenge, was too difficult to contemplate. The Emperor waited patiently, following his thoughts as they raced back and forth. For now.
Good. You may go. I do not expect that we shall need to speak again, little Hail-and-Farewell.
He lingered a moment, feeling nothing but the Emperor’s silence, then left.
Aymon, in the antechamber, was already watching the door from where he sat, so he didn’t need to turn to face Hail. The flood of emotions rolling off of him that Hail could now feel was almost overwhelming. There was the same fear/excitement twining that had settled someplace low in Hail’s stomach the first moment that he had met Aymon in person, before his senses had been muted with drugs. And the same sickly curiosity. Apparently, in the time between their first meeting and now, Aymon had not been satisfied with learning all he could about Hail.
Aymon stood. “I told you the Emperor wouldn’t kill you.”
Hail waited a moment before speaking, letting the silence in the room stretch into discomfort. “But they would take my power if I refused to serve you.”
“But did you refuse?”
Aymon’s excitement and fear flared, but were coupled with a languid smile on Aymon’s face. “Good.”
“I will kill you,” Hail said.
“A knife cuts both ways,” Aymon said. “But still it serves its purpose.”
Hail just looked at him. He wanted to reach for his knife, but resisted the temptation.
Aymon gave up on waiting for Hail to say something and gave a breathy, annoyed sigh, his attention snapping away from Hail and onto something he was pretending was much more mundane and inconsequential. “We should go greet my master,” he said. “We won’t be able to leave Stonecourt without doing so. It’s my turn to beg for forgiveness.”
Aymon was relieved to exit the Emperor’s chambers, but he kept throwing glances back at Hail as they walked the long way back to the aboveground levels of Stonecourt. It might have been almost poetic to kill Aymon there in one of the cold stone hallways, right after agreeing to serve him, but Hail was fairly sure that if he tried to fight Aymon, he would lose, especially if the Emperor intervened on his behalf. He would have to bide his time. How long, he didn’t know.
He wished he could speak with Farewell, but he hadn’t yet been brought down from space in a cargo container yet, and Hail had no idea when he would be. His shuttle was not equipped for atmospheric landings, so Farewell would be sent to languish in some warehouse, presumably. He focused on how if Farewell could bear everything, then he could bear this until the time was right, and they could escape together.
He kept his mind on this as they walked, trying to block out Aymon’s churning emotions, which only grew stronger and more complicated as they went. Their surroundings became progressively busier and more refined the closer to their destination they came. All of the people walking purposefully down the hallways looked at Aymon with naked curiosity, and then gave Hail an interested, if detached, once-over. Aymon ignored them, so Hail did as well.
They arrived faster than Hail expected, passing yet another guard checkpoint at a door and ending up not in a hallway but in a room, this one with a secretary at a desk.
“Glad you’re back, Apprentice Sandreas,” the secretary said. “She’s expecting you. Both of you.” Her eyes followed Hail. Curiosity, nothing more.
Aymon nodded and walked past, to the door on the other end of the room. He didn’t bother to knock, and simply opened it. Hail followed him in.
The room they entered was a large and beautiful office, the back wall almost entirely windows that looked out over a well-tended garden. The other walls held shelves with books and carefully chosen knick-knacks, or photographs and paintings. There were couches and a coffee table on which rested an oversized copy of the Book of Songs . And there was a large, ornate wooden desk, behind which sat a tiny woman.
She had tan skin, and her black hair was pulled back from her face with a gold band. Her hands were folded on the desk, but underneath them was the hilt of a knife that she had just put down. It looked like it had come out of the open display case on the front edge of her desk, rather than being a weapon that she carried. Not that she would have needed a weapon. From the unconscious way that Aymon oriented himself towards her, despite his clear and obvious misgivings, Hail could tell that she commanded respect and wielded power as a second nature.
Her expression was carefully cool and blank when she looked at Aymon, and she seemed to hardly notice Hail standing behind him in the doorway. Her calm face was practiced, and hid well the roiling mess of emotions that she was feeling: a sickly regret filled her throat, but barely restrained anger tensed her jaw when she studied Aymon. There was a long, hard silence in the room, and it was Aymon who broke first.
He took a few steps forward, then knelt, bowing his head. The apology that Aymon delivered was slick, in the way that he clearly enjoyed hearing himself perform well. There was a breathy desperation in him, though, and if it was the desperation to feel detached, or the desperation to feel forgiven, Hail couldn’t tell.
“Master, it would have been within your rights to dismiss me for my tresspasses against you and your authority,” Aymon said, speaking slowly. “My fault was great, and it is only by your greater mercy that I have the chance to beg for your forgiveness. Though I do not deserve your consideration, I ask only to be allowed to return to your service, as the lowest of those in your employ—”
He stopped as the woman stood from her seat and walked around before him. Her anger had cooled as soon as he had fallen to his knees before her, at least some, at least enough that she could shove it down. She touched his shoulder, a benediction, though he didn’t look up at her.
“Aymon,” she said, “you only had to ask.”
He still didn’t look up at her. “Obra did say something like that.” The delicate charm of his canned apology was gone from his voice.
“Get off the floor,” she said, but he lingered for a second longer, and she didn’t remove her hand from his shoulder until he did straighten and get up. He was taller than she was by a handsbreadth.
“Did you think I would accomplish the task you set me?” he asked. “Or did you expect me to chase my tail for a couple months more before Obra convinced me to beg?”
She glanced up across the room at Hail, who remained near the doorway, a stiff, silent observer of the scene. Their eyes met only briefly, but with her emotions about Aymon still so present, it was hard to interpret what she felt towards him, if she felt anything at all besides a distant unease. It was an honest emotion, at least. He inclined his head.
“I’ve always known you would be able to do anything asked of you. I am surprised as to how, but perhaps I shouldn’t be,” she said finally.
Aymon smiled. “How pleasing to know that you still have that confidence in me.”
She shook her head. “It’s the goals you set yourself to that are cause for concern, not that you will fail to achieve them.” She turned away from him and walked back behind her desk, picking up the knife that she had left there and putting it back in its display case. “The Emperor already told me what was said to you, so there’s no need for either of us to repeat it.”
“I should apologize for going there first, I suppose.”
“Why bother?” she asked. “The last thing I need from you is insincerity, which is all I would get.”
Aymon opened his mouth to say something, then closed it again.
“Pragmatic choice,” she said, then sat back down at her desk. “But, since the Emperor has already made the same decisions that I would, it doesn’t matter.” She looked at Hail again. “Aymon, please introduce me to your companion, as the Emperor has allowed him to stay.”
Aymon glanced back at Hail, who stepped forward at last.
“This is Halen, stardrive maker and pirate,” he said. “Halen, may I introduce you to my master, First Caron Herrault, Voice of the Empire.”
“One thing that the Emperor did not describe was why you brought him here,” she said.
There was a moment of silence. “Are you asking?”
“Yes, I am, Aymon.”
“I would like a way to ensure that I survive until the end of this apprenticeship,” he said after a second. “However that may come. And I thought it would be a shame to waste talent that could be put to use as an assistant. He’s quite capable.” He believed what he was saying, but he was uncomfortable as he said it.
“Very well.” She looked at the knife in its display. “I can’t fault you for that.”
“Was there something you would fault me for?”
She did not look up at him, instead reaching across her desk to retrieve a small notepad and engraved pen. She held it as if to write something down, but the only thing that ended up on the paper was a harsh, meaningless scribbled line. “Aymon, things are not as they were. I would like you to keep that in mind when you speak to me.”
He was annoyed, so he kept his voice cool. “Of course.”
“I expect that you would like the remainder of the day to settle back in.”
Aymon’s annoyance spiked. It made Hail want to rub his head, the sharp pain of Aymon’s too-loud emotions forming up as a nail driven directly into his temple. “You don’t have anything you need me to do?”
“Tomorrow,” Herrault said. “There will be plenty to do, and plenty of time to do it in. But not now, Aymon.”
“As you wish.” He turned on his heel and headed for the door, his short red cape flaring out behind him. “Halen, with me.”
“No,” Herrault said. “I would like to speak with Halen alone.”
“The Emperor has already made sure he’s going to be on his best behavior,” Aymon said. “I’m not sure what more there is to say.”
If only for the fact that he enjoyed Herrault’s ability to anger Aymon, Hail took a seat on one of the couches, though it was too small for him to be comfortable. Aymon frowned.
“Someone else will need to escort you to your new home, then,” he said.
“I’m sure that can be arranged without trouble,” Herrault replied. “I will speak with you tomorrow , Aymon.”
With one last annoyed glance at the two of them, Aymon stalked out of the room. Herrault once again stood from her desk, then looked out the window with her hands clasped behind her back. Unlike Aymon’s short crimson cape, which reached only his waist, hers went all the way to the floor. Without him in the room, her emotions came into sharper focus. All her anger was gone, but the regret remained. It took her a moment to compose her thoughts.
“Can I tell you something, Halen?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said, though he doubted he had much choice.
“Aymon has been my apprentice for five years,” she said. “And all that time, I’ve spent far more effort than I should trying to protect him from things he has never needed or wanted protection from.”
Hail had no way to respond to that, so he stayed silent, watching her.
“He’s spent his time with the Fleet, of course, but I’ve never sent him to the front, never put him at the head of the machine. I’ve taken all of the responsibility upon myself, as much as I can. He would say it’s because I like to be in control at too granular of a level, that I don’t trust anyone but myself. That I’m trying to keep power out of his hands. That’s not really the reason.” Without turning away from the window, she pointed across the room to a photo hanging on the wall, a picture of three men and a much younger Herrault. Hail studied it from his seat.
“When I was his age, my own master had no illusions of protecting us from the realities of the universe, and our duties. When First Wyland sent Yusuf and Milo to directly command the front, neither of them could bear the things he made them do.” Hail looked back at her, away from the photo, and saw in her window reflection that she had closed her eyes. “Yusuf told me that he couldn’t live with it for eternity, before he killed himself. Milo didn’t say anything, but I knew him. Better than anyone in the universe, I knew him.”
She fully believed her confessional speech, though Hail had no idea why she was giving it. It seemed as though Aymon’s love of his own voice had come from her tutelage.
Her voice was weirdly calm as she continued. “I chose apprentices who would have survived my own apprenticeship, and then I put them through the wrong one. I’ve often thought that First Wyland must have done the same thing when he chose my cohort, and it makes me wonder what flaws he saw in himself that he was trying to prune out by choosing the three of us.”
She took a breath. “I know how to do what must be done,” she said. “And I know how to look at the consequences without flinching. It’s taken me a long time to learn that, but I have learned. If I were Aymon, I would understand the impulse to keep a reminder of those consequences by my side.” She laughed, suddenly, harshly. “It would not be a noble impulse. It would be cruel to myself, and crueler to you. But that is why I would have spared your life, if I had needed to find a justification.”
She finally turned away from the window. “It’s not Aymon’s reason, I’m sure. I doubt he knows his reasons himself, and even if he did, he wouldn’t tell them to me.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Hail asked, now that she was looking at him, seeming to want more of a conversation.
“I chose Aymon because he can act without hesitation or remorse. I chose him well by that criteria, though I’ve often wondered if it was the right one.” She walked around her desk, then sat on the couch across from Hail. He dwarfed her completely, though he found this stranger and more uncomfortable than she did. She looked at him.
“I did not expect him to personally hunt your family’s ship,” she said. “But I did order him to find the stardrive maker, and I knew that someone would be the one to do it eventually. So you may lay that blame on me, if you wish.” She paused, waiting for him to respond.
“And if I do? It won’t protect him, if that’s what you’re trying to do by telling me this.”
“No, I’m not trying to protect him,” she said, but even as she said it, she seemed to realize it wasn’t true. She paused. “What I’m trying to do is offer what apology I can, since he would never give you one.”
Hail clenched his fists. It was only her sincerity, which he could feel in his own breast, that stopped him from leaping out of his seat. “You expect me to forgive you? Or him?”
“No. No, I would never expect that, and nor would I deserve it, even if I dared to hope. Nor would it matter if you gave me your forgiveness, really.” She looked out the window again, across the garden. The last red of the sunset was just now staining the horizon, blood-clouds on the rapidly darkening sky. If Hail had been anywhere else watching it, he would have been fascinated by the shifting colors, but listening to Herrault’s words, he just felt ill. “Whatever must be done in service of the Empire, I would do again, so perhaps an apology means nothing. But my weakness is to give one anyway, at least when there is someone who remains to give it to. Usually, there isn’t.”
She looked back towards him, meeting his eyes. “So, though it may be worth less than nothing, I do pray for forgiveness for what was done to your family’s ship. If there is anything that I can offer you—”
“No,” Hail said.
“I didn’t expect that there would be.” She took the gold band off her head, and her hair fell in her eyes. She brushed it away, a childish fidget. “You shall have the ship’s value anyway—”
“I don’t want your blood money.”
“Very well.” She was unsurprised, and made no attempt to hide it.
“Was that all you had to say?”
“Yes,” she said. “I’m sure the Emperor’s warning to you was more than sufficient, so I won’t repeat it.” She put down her gold hairband on the table, then stood, offering Halen her hand. “If you remain here, it will be in our best interests to develop a working relationship, if nothing more,” she said.
There was no malice in her, only sincerity. She probably wouldn’t be offended if he refused to take her hand. She was dangerous, but not unpredictable, he thought. He stood, towering over her, and did not take her offered hand. “Nothing more,” he said back.
She nodded and dropped her hand to her side. “There is someone outside waiting to escort you to your new lodgings,” she said. To forestall an objection that he didn’t have, she said, “You’re not under guard, Mr. Halen, and you’re free to go where you like, but there’s no sense in you getting lost.”
She was lying about not being under guard, of course. He was sure that his every movement would be watched by someone, be it a spy or the Emperor, but he nodded, then turned to go without further conversation.
There was indeed an older man in uniform waiting outside Herrault’s office to take him out of Stonecourt, and Hail followed him through the building’s cold hallways without protest. As he walked, he felt an itching on the back of his neck, the feeling of observation, of intense curiosity. The feeling wasn’t coming from his escort, but was coming from somewhere behind him. The hallways were full of people who occasionally spared him a glance, but this was a sustained feeling. He craned his neck behind himself as he walked, but with so many people in the hallway, he couldn’t pinpoint which one was the source of the feeling. He was growing overwhelmed by the number of strangers surrounding him on all sides, far worse than being on any black station.
As he and his guide entered the wide rotunda that led to the front of the building, Hail waited until they were halfway across the brightly lit room, with nowhere for his pursuer to duck and hide, and he stopped and turned on his heel.
The feeling found its home with a jolt as he made eye contact with his curious follower: a tiny young woman who appeared as out of place as Hail did. She was dressed fashionably, but not like anyone around her, in an electric blue dress and white leather jacket, and she bore a striking resemblance to First Herrault, though her hair was cropped short. She opened her mouth in surprise as Hail caught her, then smiled and jogged up to him, totally unafraid.
“Why are you following me?” he asked.
“I wasn’t following you, exactly,” she said. “We just happened to be going in the same direction.”
“Ms. Herrault,” Hail’s escort said, “I believe First Herrault wanted to have dinner with you this evening.”
She rolled her eyes. “I’ll be there.” She turned back to Hail. “You’re Halen, right? The pirate?”
“Obra told me about you. I’m glad I caught you without Apprentice Sandreas around.”
She wrinkled her lip. “I’ve been told it’s in my best interests to stay away from him.” The words, though delivered in an amusingly light tone, were accompanied by a pang of sadness. “I’m Frae, by the way.” She stuck out her hand for him to shake.
Although he had suspected it from the way she was dressed, not wearing a cassock and cape like all the other sensitives he had met were, when he briefly touched her with his power, he confirmed that she wasn’t a sensitive— there was no extra resonance in the contact. The fact that she and Aymon, for whatever reason, did not get along immediately endeared her to him, so he shook her hand. This was comical, as her whole hand could fit inside his palm.
“You’re the captain’s daughter?” he asked.
Frae laughed. “Oh, if you describe it like that, you make me think of that spacer song. Do you know it?”
“I’m not a Guild spacer.”
“It goes, hm, ‘Ama’s mother was the captain, long live Ama! Now she’s gone, her daughter is better, long live Ama! If your mother is the captain won’t you be the captain too? That’s what each of us deserve when we’re our mother’s flesh and blood.’” She had a pleasant but untrained singing voice.
Hail didn’t know what to make of Frae’s little rendition, but she was looking at him expectantly, smiling. “We elected the captain on my ship,” he said after a second.
“That’s so fascinating,” she said, quite earnest. “Do all pirate ships do that?”
“I don’t know. Probably not.”
Frae glanced towards the door. “Do you want company on your walk out?”
“Well,” she said, “I’d like to get to know you. And it’s not a long walk.” She glanced at Hail’s escort, who was frowning. “And no one will have a problem with it.”
“Fine,” Hail said. She was completely guileless, and the first genuinely friendly person he had met, in a way he couldn’t help but be charmed by. Frae was nothing like Grace, but something about her nevertheless reminded Hail of her.
“Excellent.” She took jaunty strides towards the bank of doors at the other end of the lobby, and Hail followed after her, though he soon overtook her, simply by virtue of his legs being longer. His escort, still frowning, moved a couple steps behind them both, and Hail noticed out of the corner of his eye that a couple people in plainclothes who had previously been loitering in the rotunda now peeled off to follow him out of the building. Frae either didn’t notice or didn’t care.
The exit to the building had two sets of doors, and Hail fastidiously pulled the first behind him, then stood still, waiting. Frae, who had her hand on the door to the outside, looked at him strangely. “Why did you stop?”
“For the airlock—” he began, then realized how little sense that made on a planet.
Frae laughed at him, and, despite himself, Hail chuckled, shook his head, and reached over her head to push open the door and head out into the cold autumn night air.
“I’ve been on ships a couple of times,” Frae said. “But not for a while. I guess it must be pretty different from living on a planet.”
“You’ll get used to it,” she said confidently. He frowned, but she hadn’t meant anything by what she said except vague reassurance, so he said nothing. “I’m always so bored on ships. There’s not that much to do. There’s plenty of interesting things in Yora, though, if you ever want me to show you any.”
“Maybe,” he said.
“Do you have anything you like to do?” she asked.
“I read a lot.”
“Really? What do you like to read?” She jogged in front of him, then turned around backwards and kept walking, so that they could face each other as they talked.
“Romance novels,” Hail said. As he had expected, this delighted her. She grinned.
“I never would have guessed,” she said.
“Some of them are good, you know.”
“I’m more of a poetry person,” she said. “I wanted to study that in school, but my mother suggested I do something more practical, so I’m in an agronomics grad program. I don’t love it, but it’s fine.”
“Why would it matter what you study?”
This question annoyed her, and Hail was sorry for asking it. “I have to figure out my own life, so I’m told,” she said. “It’s fine.”
“I’m sure you’ll figure out what you need to.”
She laughed. “You shouldn’t say things like that when you’ve just met me.”
To spare her from a subject she found uncomfortable, Hail asked, “What do you like to do in Yora?”
“I love to go to the beach,” she said. “Not exactly in Yora, but not too far away. And I love to go to shows— there’s lots of good clubs around.”
She spent a few minutes describing which clubs and shows were the best she had been to and seen, though Hail couldn’t follow the details, lacking the necessary context. But he listened patiently, and she was quite happy to have an ear to talk into.
Now that his mind was clear of drugs, he could pay closer attention to his surroundings as they walked. The city streets were all neat, at least this close to the capitol, and although it was dark out (which Hail felt far more comfortable with than the glaring and strange sunlight of the day), the streets were brightly illuminated by overhead streetlights and the signage on the windows of the nearby buildings. Most of the buildings were stone, though some were brick, and none were taller than the capitol building looming behind them.
Frae stopped in front of one building, six stories high. “Well, here is your place,” she said, shoving her hands into her pockets.
“How do you know?”
“Obra told me. They live on the top floor, with Aymon, and Jalena— well, not anymore.” She shrugged, the sadness in her voice exactly matched by the sudden shift in her emotions. “You’ll be on the third floor, though. There was an empty suite. Mostly apprentices of important people live here. It’s all arranged by the government…” She trailed off and glanced up at him. “I guess, I don’t know, should I go?”
He held open the door. “I’m sure I’ll see you around,” Hail said. “It doesn’t seem like either of us are likely to go anywhere any time soon.”
She laughed, then frowned. “Well, only if you’re not with Apprentice Sandreas,” she said. Her tone and conflicted emotions raised Hail’s hackles.
“What did he do to you?” he asked.
Frae looked down the street. “It doesn’t really matter,” she said. “Anyway, he already got punished for it. And I mostly did it to myself.” She tried to collect herself and smile. “It’s fine. Have fun getting settled.”
“Thank you,” he said. She turned back around and again began trotting backwards down the street, giving him a jaunty wave before turning in the proper direction. The plainclothes men who had been following her and Hail on their walk turned back around as well. They had been her guard, then. This left only Hail’s escort, who led him through the building to his room, and instructed him on how to set up the door lock.
And then he was alone.