GATHERING

Another secton's briefing was over. Commander Cain watched his chief officers mingling, conversing, and comparing notes as they left the chamber. For the first time, he felt truly confident this Delphian-Colonial arrangement was going to work. The officers were beginning to understand and respect each other's talents and backgrounds. The Delphian women were easing into their new duties, relieving some of the tremendous pressure on the Pegasus crew. Captain Tokyo even managed to speak civilly to Major Electra. Cain felt they were making progress.

"Kleopatra, we're going to make it," he stated with satisfaction. Not, of course, that he'd ever really doubted his ability to hold it all together.

His executive officer nodded, with a sigh. Many of the problems of the past few sectons had fallen on her shoulders, and the Delphians were not easy for a Colonial woman to deal with. Kenji had helped in every way possible, as had Mriko, his wife. The two crews seemed to be meshing well, and the Delphian warriors were coming to respect Kleopatra enough to talk directly to her when they had questions, rather than going through Kenji or directly to Cain.

Cain, for his part, was quite pleased to have two such competent, high-ranking officers working so well together. Both were quite capable of taking command of the Pegasus, should it be necessary, although Kleopatra of course had more seniority on the ship, and Colonial experience.

Kenji lingered at the foot of the table after all but Kleopatra had left, standing uncertainly with a peculiar expression on his face. Cain hoped a new problem wasn't manifesting just when things seemed under control. He hadn't seen Kenji uncertain about anything since the first few days on the battlestar. The man kept his counsel until he'd made a decision, then stood by it.

"Commander, may I speak with you?" Kenji asked quietly.

"What is it, Kenji?"

The dark-haired man glanced once at the other colonel, then settled his slight frame into a chair at the opposite end of the table.

"Shall I leave?" the black woman asked, noting his reticence.

Kenji shook his head. "No, this will concern you as well. Commander, do you recall when I spoke of our hopes for a future world and restored Empire, and of our Delphian codes?"

"Yes, but I don't recall any connection between the two."

"When our Empire ... died, and we were evacuating what we could, our surviving commanders met to plan the escape. One thing they arranged was the creation of a special code, one the Cylons would have no opportunity to be familiar with. It was to be used in only two instances – when a ship was dying, so the others would know, or if a world was found, and safety of some kind, to summon the others to a meeting place."

Cain's curiosity was aroused. "Continue," he said, leaning forward.

"I wish to send the summoning signal."

Kleopatra's eyebrows shot up in surprise, and her dark eyes widened.

Cain reached for the eagle-headed staff on the table before him. He tapped it idly, staring at Kenji, frowning in thought. "Might I ask your reasoning?"

"I have been studying the information on your Colonial fleet. Such seems a good idea. It would have been wiser, I think, for our people to gather as well. Now that we have escaped the Cylons, we need to be in contact with each other. We need to fight together, and in time to settle a world together."

"Together?" Kleopatra asked softly, skeptically, under her breath.

Cain was thoughtful. "Together. Your surviving ships and my battlestar?"

"Yes."

"What happens to the Pegasus in a Delphian fleet, presuming enough of your people gather to form a fleet?" he asked quietly.

"We will need a fleet commander, of course, but I do not see any of my people being fools enough to want to fight you or leave a battlestar behind."

"Who would command a Delphian majority fleet?" asked Kleopatra. "From what I know of Delphian culture, the loss of the Kindred – your royal family – left you basically leaderless, without any one individual your people would all accept as a ruler. What will you do now?" Her cautious question was not lost on Cain or Kenji. The Delphian shrugged, avoiding a direct response. She wondered if he even knew what they'd do, or if the Dragonsbreath survivors believed or hoped some of their leaders still lived.

"Kenji," Cain began, slowly and carefully, "one of the reasons I left the Galactica and her fleet, I'll admit, is that I don't take orders very well. I'm a Colonial warrior, one of the best, but I'm still an independent adaka who doesn't like being told what to do."

"We get along well here."

"That may be, but it's a bit different accepting orders from the man who saved your people's lives, and still following that man when he disobeys an order from one of your own people, on your own ships. I don't want mutiny on my ship – and this remains a Colonial battlestar. If you want to leave, you have the right to transfer, if we encounter others of your kind, but I won't have divided loyalties on my ship."

"Cain, you are a good commander. You think like a Delphian in battle, and you fight like a demon. I would not want to transfer from this ship. But there may be greater safety in more ships – and I believe my people need that."

"It's your right to summon them," Cain said stiffly.

"I want your approval. I might point out that a battlestar is larger than any of the Delphian warships that survived the death of the Empire. It's very unlikely any commander would dispute your claim to leadership of a fleet." Kenji was silent on what would happen if in fact some member of the royal family had survived to assert authority.

Kleopatra marveled at how quickly Kenji had come to put as much trust in Cain's command as the Colonial warriors who served him did. His magnetism was incredible – but then, so were his abilities.

Cain observed the slight, almost eager smile on Kenji's face. He rose, passing behind his exec to stand nearer the man, the gold eagle staff behind his back. "Is that a bribe, or a promise?" he asked.

"Besides which," Kenji continued, "I will again remind you that your ship has a destination, a goal beyond mere survival. I cannot help but think the Galactica would be as pleased to see Sunriders as your Vipers on the day your people are reunited."

"True...." Cain considered the advantages.

"With your skills as a commander, and with just the Pegasus, you have survived the Cylons. What could you do with a fleet of Delphian warriors? Could the Cylons stand against us?"

"Don't try flattering me, Kenji. I'll do what I think is best for this ship, and for Adama's fleet. Though I have to admit, you have a good list of arguments."

"If a suitable arrangement cannot be worked out, you could leave us as you left the Galactica, without a word. You owe us no answer. Our codes respect a warrior, and being Colonial, not even our Emperor, if he survived, would demand an accounting from you."

"Commander," Kleopatra offered thoughtfully when Cain made no reply. "I'm inclined to try it. From what I know of Delphian culture...."

"And I," Cain stated decisively, "am inclined to agree with you both. Kenji, let's summon some of those warriors you're so proud of. If there're other survivors in this quadrant, let's get them together."

The colonels fell into step behind Cain as he strode from the briefing room. As they headed for the bridge, they could almost see his military mind at work. The Cylons wouldn't like it, not at all. But that would only please him more.

The entry of the three highest-ranking officers on the battlestar brought only a micron's halt to the activity of the busy bridge crew. A gesture from their commander, and they resumed their tasks. Major Titus, officer of the watch, instantly appeared with a report of the preceding few centars. Cain glanced at it, then passed it to Kleopatra and continued to the main command deck.

"Memnon, turn over your console to the Colonel. He has an important message to send, and you don't have the codes."

The young black man was startled, but obeyed. Kenji slid into the vacated chair, face impassive in thought, his fingers already moving over the keys. Memnon watched intently.

"Corporal, assist me!"

Memnon jumped at Lt. Mriko's unusually sharp command. She knew what Kenji was doing, and she wasn't about to allow their most important codes to fall into strange hands. The corporal was summoned to assist in an extremely trivial task – which occupied the two centons it took for Kenji to transmit his message.

The Delphian rose. "It is sent. Now we can only wait for the response, if there is one, and then for answering ships to converge with us."

"How will we know if there is an answer, if we don't know the code?" Memnon was miffed; codes were his business, and if these Delphians were truly allies, why hadn't the message been placed in his competent hands to transmit?

"I will leave a copy of the answering hail. When I am on the bridge, I will examine the responses to determine who, if anyone, approaches. Don't be angered, Memnon," Kenji continued, voice pitched so low that only the corporal could hear it, "only I and my commander knew this code – no one else in my crew knows it either."

"If there are survivors within range, we should hear from them before a secton passes," said Cain. "Barring problems, may I presume, Colonel, that we may move again if we haven't heard anything by then?"

"I would not presume on your authority, Commander. The time bracket seems correct. And if there is no answer, there were none alive to hear."

Cain nodded. "Very well. We wait. Senmut, bring the Pegasus to full stop. All necessary camouflage and evasion tactics as required...."

* * * * *

The first two days passed uneventfully. Kenji hadn't really expected an answering signal so soon. About the middle of the third day, he began to haunt the bridge. His wife, too, seemed to spend a great deal of anxious time at Memnon's board, occasionally remaining through extra duty shifts. The fourth day passed; Kenji's usually impassive expression gave way to a look that would kill at twenty paces.

Toward the end of the fifth day, at the end of a long and impossibly tense duty shift, a message came through. Memnon had just thankfully handed the comm panel to Lygia when an alien series of glyphs flowed across the board.

"What the frak...?" The woman stared. Memnon halted, checking the code himself. Both officers studied the single message for several centons.

"Colonel, it's yours!" Memnon's call broke Kenji's frozen stance. Kenji and Mriko quickly joined them at the console. The Delphian woman watched anxiously as Kenji's face took on a look of great satisfaction.

Tolan had already summoned Cain. He arrived on the bridge and climbed the steps to the command deck two at a time.

"I presume it's yours?" he asked.

"Yes!" Kenji's exultation belied his calm visage. "This signal is from the Starhawk. They are already on the way, and expect to rendezvous in four days."

With a gesture, the excess personnel scattered, leaving Cain, Kenji, and Lygia on the command deck.

"What kind of ship is the Starhawk?" Cain asked, eagle staff slapping gently against his thigh.

"Same class as my Dragonsbreath. It was part of the convoy that ran for the Colonies. A very well-run ship, if the officers I remember are still in charge."

"What will her commander's reaction be to seeing a Colonial battlestar when he's expecting sanctuary of some kind?"

"We ran for the Colonies, Cain. They'll be as pleased as we were to see a battlestar."

"If I remember correctly," Cain reminded him, "your pleasure at seeing us was because your own ship was a drifting derelict."

"The Starhawk will be pleased to see you. They are aware we are with a battlestar. Its officers will understand the necessity."

"Oh?"

Lygia broke in. "Commander, another signal. From Sigma Quadrant."

Kenji bent to study the second message. "The Stormbreaker," he reported a centon later.

"How long?"

"Approximately seven days. They are having trouble with an engine. We may have to delay for repairs when they join us."

Cain nodded. "Keep me informed."

He stepped slowly down from the command deck, where he knew Kenji would keep a long vigil. The interesting part, he thought, would be in four days when they had their first encounter with a healthy Delphian warship. Kenji said the commander was aware he would be dealing with Colonials – but what would he really expect?

* * * * *

Cmdr. Cain studied Cmdr. Pa as thoroughly as Pa studied him. The commander of the Starhawk was not a handsome man. He was as tall as Kenji, and broader-shouldered. His black hair was streaked with white, giving him a striking appearance. A massive shrapnel scar etched a circle on the left side of his face. His left arm had been amputated. He walked with a stiff-legged limp. A battle sectars before had nearly claimed his life, and only the knowledge that his ship needed him had carried the old veteran through the difficult operation and long recovery period.

"Kenji tells me you are a good commander," the man said brusquely. He watched Cain with gleaming black eyes that betrayed a mind unimpaired by his injuries. "I am not in the habit of handing my ship to strangers."

"I wouldn't expect you to, Pa. I'd think less of you if you did. You must also be a good commander, to have brought the Starhawk so far, alone."

Pa seemed to unwind slightly, enough to show his respect for Kenji's opinion and for Cain's compliment. But Cain could see he held something back, something of importance.

"Cain," Pa said wearily, "command has not been easy since that battle. I lost many of my best officers, and I was not well, but there was no one to whom I could entrust my ship. I will never surrender the Starhawk while I live, but if it comes to a commanders' vote, are you a man I can acknowledge as my equal, my superior? Can I hear you without doubts? Will my people see you as one they can look up to, and die for, if necessary?"

"My people do, and they're still alive."

Pa threw his head back and laughed. "Yes, Cain, a man has to respect you. I will give you my support." Then he stepped aside to speak privately to Kenji. Watching them, Cain felt uneasy.

* * * * *

The Stormbreaker had lost its commander early in the flight. Its main bridge had been all but destroyed in an explosion, and all functions transferred elsewhere while repairs continued. The highest-ranking surviving officer was a young pilot-captain, who needed little persuasion to accept Pa's judgment in deferring to the Pegasus as flagship of the makeshift fleet. Repairs on the Stormbreaker occupied the next secton. During that time, several other ships joined the hidden group clustered in the lonely star system.

Three small craft joined in a group. The Winds of Space and the Sunrise were small, fast strike craft, designed and outfitted to carry men and fighters rapidly into combat areas. With them came a Colonial mining freighter from an asteroid base. The Colonials had latched onto the Delphians in sheer desperation, unaware of the Galactica's survival, or her fleet.

The Cylon Prize was nearly blown up before it managed to identify itself. The Prize was a Cylon freighter, commandeered in a battle that had cost the Delphians their own base ship. With no other choice, the survivors had taken the nearest handy ship and converted it to human use, renaming it in the process. The entire Cylon crew was disassembled or melted down for parts and raw materials, and now Sunriders and shuttles nested next to the few remaining Raiders.

As Cain studied the flight lists and crew rosters Electra and Kleopatra were continually updating and supplying him, he had to smile. His new makeshift fleet had Colonial Vipers, a few old-style Colonial Starhounds, Delphian Sunriders, and even some Cylon Raiders – and the crews to fly and maintain them! His flight commander threw up her hands in near-despair trying to forge a fighting group from the motley lot, but she seemed to be succeeding. They waited for the arrival of yet one more ship before the Pegasus and her fleet could get underway. The Imperial Soul had yet to arrive....

* * * * *

"So why in Hades do I get the feeling you're not telling me everything?" Cain exploded.

The assembled officers studiously looked elsewhere, shifting uneasily. Though their commander's anger wasn't directed at them, the Pegasus crewmen were unwilling to face his wrath. The Delphians traded glances, but were silent.

"Well?" Cain continued furiously. "I expect answers. What the blazes are you hiding from me about this Soul ship?" His fingers drummed an ominous counterpoint rhythm.

The bridge comm suddenly came to life, breaking the stillness. Cain jabbed at a switch. "Here, Tolan. What is it?"

His aide's filtered voice responded. "Commander, the Imperial Soul is within shuttle distance, and is requesting – no, make that expecting landing clearance for a shuttle, sir."

"Have them hold, Tolan."

"Yes, sir."

"What? Commander, you can't–" Dismay and shock.

"Can't what?" Cain asked in a deadly voice. "Can't why? I can hold that shuttle out there for as long as I have to, for any reason I wish – and I will keep it off my ship, as long as I have any reason to question it." He glared.

"Very well, Commander," a deep voice answered. Pa rose slowly from his seat, assisted by Lee, the captain from the Stormbreaker. "It is time you knew."

"Knew what?"

All attention focused on Pa – the Colonials intent, concerned; the Delphians uneasy, worried.

"We know the Emperor died at Gamoray, with most of the Kindred. However, several younger members – children -- were unaccounted for in the final tally. It's possible they were smuggled offworld earlier in the battle. If so, the Soul is the craft they would be aboard. She was better armed than other ships, and was more appropriately outfitted for the desires and expectations of a prince over a long voyage."

Eyes swivelled to Cain, to view the Colonial commander's reaction.

His face was perfectly composed. The comm broke the silence.

"Sir?"

Cain touched the switch. "Yes, Tolan?"

"The Soul again, sir. They're demanding an explanation for forcing their shuttle to delay coming aboard the Pegasus. They say if we don't afford a proper welcome immediately, and I quote, 'our widows will be wearing white within the centar.' What shall I tell them?"

Cain glanced back at Pa, who replied, "The color of mourning, Cain."

"Grant permission to come aboard, Tolan. Inform them we'll have an appropriate honor guard waiting. Then order the formal guard to Alpha landing bay."

"Immediately, sir."

"Wearing white within the centar, Pa?"

He shrugged. "An ancient custom, and an ancient threat. White is the color of extreme youth, and of death and mourning. We are born in white, and we return to it in death. The threat should be obvious."

"Explains their reactions to my med techs," the medical chief muttered under her breath. A small ripple of humor ran through the group, but not so loud as to attract the commander's attention.

"Very well," Cain finished concisely, rising abruptly from his seat at the head of the table. "I said there'd be a proper honor guard for this shuttle, and there will be. All officers, Alpha landing bay."

The collection of gathered humanity filed rapidly out of the room.

Major Electra, flight commander of the Pegasus and flight coordinator for the fleet, grabbed the arm of one of her flight captains, Tokyo of Golden Sun squadron, himself a Delphian. "What will this mean to the fleet?" she hissed at him.

He licked his lips before responding. "We are Delphians," he said carefully.

"What kind of answer is that? What in Hades does it mean?" she demanded.

"Perhaps nothing to you, but everything to me."

"So?"

"Your people are no longer the majority," he replied simply. "And we now have sufficient ships to evacuate our people. What a simple commanders' vote has declared, can be easily undone by one word of Imperial decree. Our fate may have passed into other hands."

"On the basis of what one person says, you'd just up and leave the best commander you could ask for, and abandon your current plans?" she continued hotly.

Tokyo carefully pulled his arm free of her grasp. "This may be my ruler. And is not obedience what you give Commander Cain? Excuse me, Major. I believe I will be required in the bay."

He strode away as she stared in disbelief. Then, after a moment, she began to understand. "Tokyo," she whispered to empty air, "we may not be the best of friends, but I sincerely hope duty doesn't force us to battle as enemies." Then she hastened off to join the gathered personnel waiting to welcome what might be an emperor.

* * * * *

Next to the Colonial honor guard, the Delphians from the shuttle appeared almost gaudy. Their emerald and gold uniforms, with trim and emblem of rank and squadron, far outshone the much plainer Colonial uniforms. Even the Delphians of Cain's fleet had a simpler, more practical garb than these royal guardsmen.

With a fanfare of taped music, a very regal-looking young girl stepped down from the shuttle, head held high. Although she was less than five feet tall, an elaborately upswept coiffure with fanciful gold metalwork woven through it gave her an extra foot of height. The black-haired, almond-eyed child was dressed in a simple, becoming gown in dominant purple shades, swirled through with gold in the same pattern as held her hairstyle.

As she stepped carefully to the deck, her delicate hands lifted the gown just clear of the floor, and small steps carried her gracefully forward. She stopped before reaching Cain.

"Commander Pa! We recognize you from Father's court! But you've been injured!" A gentle, carefully pitched voice barely carried beyond the man she addressed.

A smile creased his scarred face as the commander dropped slowly to one knee. "But I still have my eyes, little one. You're becoming a beauty, as your honored mother was."

The noble head inclined slightly. "We thank you, Commander. You are known for your graciousness. Do you command this fleet, then?"

"No, Lady Sumiko. The fleet commander is Cain, of the battlestar Pegasus, from the Twelve Colonies." Pa gestured at Cain, now approaching with a slight swagger to his stride and a handful of officers trailing behind him.

Delicately lined eyebrows puckered. "You follow a Colonial?" she asked incredulously.

"He seems a most competent commander, Lady," Pa replied. "It would be wise, I think, for a young Emperor to be guided by his counsel."

There was a sudden, awkward silence among the honor guard from the Soul. Sumiko stiffened slightly, as though reminded of something unpleasant, but relaxed before she spoke. "Has no one told you, Pa? Our brothers did not survive the journey. We are the last of the Kindred. We are your Empress."

The silence spread. Cain, Kleopatra, and Electra came to a halt before the Empress. As though at a signal, every Delphian in the landing bay dropped to one knee.

In the silence, Pa spoke. "Empress Sumiko, this is Fleet Commander Cain, of the Colonies. Cain, this is Sumiko, youngest daughter of the Imperial Kindred, Empress of the Delphian Empire, Heir to the Millennia, child of–"

"The other titles and honors mean nothing, Pa, not now." The exquisite young beauty stared up at Cain momentarily, then favored him with a stately nod. "Greetings, Commander Cain."

"Greetings, Empress Sumiko. Sorry if I don't understand your protocol, but I'm not used to kneeling before dignitaries."

The girl-empress continued to study Cain's craggy features, and he continued to return her stare with quiet dignity.

"We understand your customs are not ours," she said finally, continuing to using the Imperial "we." "Time, perhaps, will be our best teacher."

"Indeed, Empress." Seeing the Delphians slowly beginning to rise, Cain turned to his officers. "If I may make introductions?"

"Please do so, Commander." Her guard watched with aloof alertness as she bore the long series of ranks and names with all the honor of her heritage and the glory of a family reputed to have ruled the Empire for twenty-five hundred yahrens, filing each in her mind, never to forget a single one.

* * * * *

Cmdr. Cain, Maj. Electra, and Lt. Tolan answered the invitation to board the Imperial Soul and attend a meeting of the Imperial Council. The richness of the council chamber would have put to shame even the opulence of the ancient Scorpian dynasties. Embroidered tapestries in the royal golds, greens, and purples hung all around the perimeter of the room. The rising sun emblem was repeated in tapestries and in the carved solid-wood furniture. The floor was covered with a massive inlaid stone map of the Delphian Empire, labeled with each territory and its traditional governor. One Colonial flag hung on the walls amid the historical banners of millennia – the Aries triads, united on a rising sun, evidence that a legendary marital alliance of the Aries and Delphians of over a thousand yahrens earlier had some basis in fact.

Three vacant chairs still waited. Delphian ship commanders and civilian advisors stood behind the rest, awaiting the Imperial Presence. Cain and his officers took positions behind the remaining seats. Tolan waited silently, trying to will his face to the same impassiveness the Delphians showed. Electra drummed her fingernails along the sun-rayed carvings on the back of her chair. Cain assumed an attitude of deliberate coolness, as though he could wait all day. He suspected the Delphians could stand immobile for centars, and he was determined to show as much self-control as they, however much it went against his nature.

After several centons, a chime rang through the room, fading slowly, then suddenly flaring into a fanfare. From a concealed door behind the flowing wall hanging, three people emerged – a Delphian warrior in full regalia, an elderly woman in civilian robes, and the Empress, now in brilliant green patterned with silver. The metallic headdress supporting her woven hair was also of silver. Slow steps took the three newcomers to the throne, where Sumiko settled herself regally into the chair, though her small feet were left dangling inches off the floor. The warrior and the lady took positions on either side, the man on the right, the woman on the left.

Sumiko leaned back in her chair, hands resting on chair arms carved to resemble mythical reptilian creatures. She studied the silent, expectant figures around her table for a centon, then raised a delicate, five-fingered hand in a gracious invitation to be seated.

The assembled group sat. Cain nearly betrayed his disgust with the royal hoopla with a snort. Electra smothered a grin. The Empress might maintain a grave facade, but her dark eyes couldn't hide a teenager's curiosity and amusement.

The Empress spoke first. "Commander Cain of the Pegasus, of the Colonies of Kobol."

"Yes, uh, Empress?"

"You may address us as Majesty."

"As you say ... Majesty."

"We have considered your presence within a Delphian fleet, and the possible repercussions of various courses of action, and we have reached a conclusion."

All eyes watched expectantly, and several figures leaned forward.

"Though our civilian advisors argued most strongly against this choice, it is our first consideration that our peoples are at war, with an enemy having no respect for life in any form," the girl continued. "Therefore, the advice of our military commanders has been more highly regarded in this decision. Cain, all have favorable opinions of you. At their urging, therefore, we have elected to remain together as a fleet. Considering your ship and your former position in the Colonies, you hold the highest rank in a consolidated fleet, after ourselves, or course. We therefore offer you the position of Fleet Commander and Advisor. Do you accept?"

The civilians seemed shocked; the old woman beside her glared.

Even Cain was startled, but he quickly regained his composure. "I'd be honored, Majesty, but I must first inquire how much control this gives me, and what other ... responsibilities this entails." He stood up, the tough-minded commander prepared to take charge.

The girl coughed delicately, breaking the shocked silence of others, who appeared outraged that anyone dared speak so bluntly to their Empress. Sumiko smiled at Cain.

"A valid question," she murmured softly. "I would not presume to try to command a fleet. I am untrained in such areas, though my brothers were. You have total military control – your reputation is known, and your tactical ability will no doubt prove invaluable in other areas as well." No one seemed to notice her lapse from Imperial plural to common singular. Her eager smile seemed very anxious for his approval. The old dowager at her side touched her shoulder briefly, and Sumiko quickly pulled her face back into its schooled calm.

"Then, as I said before, I accept," Cain replied. He resumed his seat, wondering what else was to be considered at this unusual gathering. He observed the faces of the other advisors. The military men betrayed few emotions, though Kenji permitted himself a slight nod of approval. The civilians, on the other hand, carried an aura of distrust.

The young girl rose to her full, if short height. "Excellent. Since that is decided, this council is adjourned. Commander, I ... we have already considered the future. Regular meetings will of course be necessary, although we are confident of your ability to maintain a smoothly running fleet. We will address you later, and as needed." Then, with a regal half-nod of her head, Sumiko turned, her green gown swirling as she retreated through the hangings. Her two escorts followed her without a backward glance.

The civilians were quick to disperse, leaving only military personnel. Cain glanced at Kenji and Pa, seated next to each other near him.

"Interesting girl," he commented.

"The last survivor of the Royal Kindred, and our Imperial Empress," Pa reproved. "At least she has the sense to leave military matters in military hands."

"How old is she, anyway?" Tolan asked curiously.

"She has just passed her fifteenth natal day, as you can see by her adult hairstyles and attire," Pa stated.

Electra considered the difficulties in fixing and maintaining such hairstyles over any period of time. Then she remembered the Empress probably had a squadron of hairdressers, cosmeticians, and wardrobers to help maintain the royal image.

"Well," Cain said with finality a moment later, "it's time we got back to work. Electra, Tolan, let's get back to the Pegasus. I get itchy away from that particular lady."

He strode briskly out of the long chamber, his officers quickly rising to follow him.

"Major," the lieutenant noted, "I get the impression the Empress has taken a liking to our Commander."

"Actually, Lieutenant," she replied, holding back a giggle, "a fifteen-yahren-old girl with a crush on a much older man can be a dangerous thing, especially when she happens to be an Empress, with control over a fleet. Our Commander will have to be very careful."

The young man smiled, shrugging. "I wouldn't know about those things. You may have to advise the commander about more than flight rosters before long."

She cast her gaze upward. "Lords, I hope not!"

"Are you coming?" they heard a strong voice call.

They quickened their pace at his implied order. In the newly-gathered fleet, they both would have more strenuous duties, and those duties called.


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