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Solae was relieved to find the store front vacant and unlocked. Despite being in close proximity to the sea, and a building rather than a vessel, it was rather reminiscent of the state of the Bonaventure before they stole it from the slavers. There was a palpable layer of grime over every surface that spoke to how Vitger knew appearances would not affect his sales. Similarly, the smugglers had been confidant their filth would not harm their bottom line so they had been quite content to let a thick muck build on equipment in disuse. Salt, chemical residue, dirt, sand, and grease were caked in crevices of the door and the natural indentations of furniture. When she had left the warehouse Solae had been certain she had given Rene and Tychon the worse of the two jobs. Suddenly her faith in that assertion was waning.

The marquise firmly closed the door behind her and turned the lock. Should either of her companions need to gain entry they could knock or communicate through Rene's device. With purpose she then turned to the windows and shuttered them closed as well with little difficulty. This might have been a more unusual sight had the typhoon not just passed. With storms of such magnitude it was not strange for merchants to take just as much time to recover as their customers. Even if there was no outward damage to the structures Vitger used for his trade, people might not know the status of his personal residence, or they might wrongly conclude that he was aiding his neighbors rather than hoping to earn a profit.

Because it was so integral to his business transactions Vitger had evidently kept his console in better condition than possibly every other one of his possessions. The screen had smudges, and it could have used a scrub around the edges, but was more than she had dared to hope for. She perched on the edge of the chair in front of it and pulled off her scarf. Keeping her hair bound and wrapped so tightly had begun to ache. With the freedom the locked door and shutters provided she could rest assured no one would stumble into the spectacle of the noblewoman with lustrous aureate hair. The loops she had wound her mane into created pleasantly soft curls from her chin past her shoulders. Silently Solae mused that all the best styles required pain before or during their execution; when she was a child she made accusations to her mother that beauticians were sadists when they tried to coax her into fancy dresses and fashionable up-dos.

"Right then," she sighed.

Vitger's hardware was less sophisticated than the communications center. Despite its simplicity, Solae navigated to wrong subsections of the programs he used for sales more than once. In truth she was stumbling blindly; as adept as she was with this avenue of technology nearly everything on this console was foreign to her. There was no Mia to guide her as she jumped around digitally looking for what she needed. The uncomfortably sultry artificial intelligence was sorely missed, not just because of the guidance she offered, but the companionship. Her love for Rene had not faltered- but she was a social individual that was most satisfied when networking.

The planetary network.

Deviating from her initial goal momentarily, Solae moved over to Vitger's messages. Afraid to so much as glimpse at whatever unsavory missives he had received, she instead began to compose. Broadcasts alerting him to her true identity meant the planetary network was functional and accessible from this console. The bounty on her head originated from New Concordia and it stood to reason that if correspondence was being delivered from other worlds and dispersed on the planetary network, it was also being transported elsewhere from Panopontus. Duke Tan would be controlling information but not blocking absolutely everything; to do so would raise red flags across the empire more quickly than he could mobilize his soldiers. Mundane letters from relatives, friends, and lovers to one another would be permitted if they lacked any hints about the coup underway.

It was an opportunity she couldn't let slip by. Seizing her chance she wrote three innocuous notes to people she knew in the sector that were trustworthy. Panopontus was wholly ignorant of the brewing war so she knew messages would not be scrutinized and monitored with the same fervor they would have on New Concordia. Solae was cautious, however, and utilized linguistic cryptography in each of the three. Not every linguist could decode puzzles from text, though most could, and these three in particular were highly educated, sharp, and astute peers. Perhaps it was a folly plan, or they'd be lost before arrival, or she'd be ignored, but taking the gamble was better than nothing. Each was signed with a pseudonym, contained no information on her location nor destination, but alluded with the cypher to the strife and peril she faced. If any of her acquaintances could offer help they could send 'Mia' a similarly encrypted post on one of several diplomatic interstellar forums.

Invigorated by her dalliance into espionage- minor though it was- the task of manipulating Vitger's records seemed easier. After a few minutes of exploring she started to revise his numbers and annotations. Solae was almost gleeful leaving the trail of crumbs. If Vitger had been an upstanding man of this city she would have never dreamed of concocting damning evidence he was a willing accomplice to two 'dangerous rebels.' Tychon and Julia had her loyalty for their virtuous compassion so she would do everything in her power to hide their interactions for the small family's safety. That Vitger had been greedy, unapologetic, crass, violent, and forced her to brandish a weapon made him the enemy. Striking Rene made him a nemesis she'd not easily forgive.

"Rene?" she called over on her transmitter. If he wasn't receiving this time she'd make a short journey to the warehouse to assault him in frustration herself. "How much are we offloading? How many tanks?"

"We're going to fill all three," he called back over.

"Is that as much as we can take?" she asked. Rene knew the struggles ahead of them; she was certain it was. "All right, I'll be done here shortly. When are we leaving?"

"Tychon says the tide would make it too difficult to make it back to the ship tonight. We'll have to leave tomorrow," he informed her, then added, "Julia and Damaris will want to say good bye."

"Once you're finished with the warehouse come over here to the office. I need someone to help me put my hair back in the scarf again," Solae sighed audibly with deep regret. Vitger was unsurprisingly not a fine gentleman with a quality mirror with which to gaze upon his reflection. She needed the men to absolutely confirm no errant strands were visible outside their cloth trappings.
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Rene slipped into the office, leaving Tychon to finish the last few tasks of loading the fuel. Both men were suffering the after affects of the stunner needles but work was as good as rest for dealing with the occasional after spasms of the neural disruptor darts. Genetic enhancement would help Rene’s expensive physiology deal with the trauma, Tychon would have to rely on his natural toughness alone, which, come to think of it was probably more than enough.

He crossed the room in a rush and wrapped his arms around Solae, pulling her to him and pressing his lips to hers in a passionate kiss. The hood fell down releasing her hair like cascade of liquid gold and undoing all the work she had done to conceal it. The spectre of disaster flitted through Rene’s mind as it imagined different possible endings to today’s events. A dart might have stopped his heart if Vitger had gotten unlucky, Solae might have come to the warehouse with him instead of going to the communications center and been taken. A dozen other equally ruinous variations, all of which ended with Solae being handed over to the rebels or killed.

Although he knew both from his training and experience that no one could be everywhere and do everything, he swore to himself that he wouldn’t let such a lapse in judgement happen again. He would get her to safety whatever the cost. After a few moments he loosened his grip on her, though he didn’t let her go completely.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, meaning more than the disruption to her hair, though meaning that also. His heart hurt with love for her and with fear for her at the same time, a fear that he never felt for his own life. He began to run his fingers through her hair, gathering it back up into her hood, the simple gesture surprisingly intimate even in such surroundings.

From outside came the sharp hiss of high pressure hoses disconnecting as Tychon worked. Rene realised that his body was trembling slightly with reaction. Adrenaline that hadn’t been burned off churned his stomach and made him feel queasy. Stars above, he hoped whatever information Solae had retrieved from the communications center would yield a solution. Rene was dedicated both to his duty and to the Stellar Empire as a whole, but for the first time he found himself wondering if maybe it wouldn’t be better to find some deserted world and wait out the storm, rather than risk the life of the woman he loved.


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"It's not your fault there is a bounty on my head last time I checked," Solae impishly reassured. There was little more she could say that she thought might bring him any comfort. It was minimally his fault they had landed through the hurricane in the spot they had, and perhaps that he had exposed himself in a way that led to his capture, but he could hardly be blamed for the limited planetary systems accessible in one jump from New Concordia, the state of the vessel they had stolen, or the myriad of other issues they faced. Truly it was the marquise herself that posed the most danger to the couple. Rene was much more easily disguised and more of a challenge to recognize, whereas the smallest toddler could identify the noblewoman from her hair alone, and it was her genetic sequence that the rebellion was desperately seeking. Had she not been discovered in his company Rene could be living a much quieter and safer life already.

"Come on, let's go before Tychon gets suspicious that we're doing something other than talking," she joked with a bemused smile as she patted his arm. Turning towards Vitger's console she finished her meddling, wiped the screen clean of any identifying fingerprints to be cautious, and set it to a sleep mode as it wouldn't be seeing any more immediate use. Somehow she doubted any forensic experts would be deeply investigating the premises- and even if they did it would be impossible to discern anything other than Solae, Rene, and Vitger had all been there, which fed into the fabrication of them all working together.

"Ready to get some dinner?" she asked Tychon as they emerged from the dingy seaport office. "I'm guessing there is no where to park all this fuel in your back yard so we'll leave it here and come back in the morning?"

Tychon grunted in acknowledgment and wiped his brow. "Should be fine for a night. Can't imagine anyone is gonna come looking for Vitger and even if they do they won't hear him in that container. I can let him out tomorrow after you two are free and clear," he suggested. On the surface this was a practical suggestion, but it was clear that the man also wanted his neighbor to be punished for his greed and betrayal. Rene and Solae both had their lives threatened multiple times over the last week; this was the only time for Tychon and it was personal. Vitger was no stranger or soldier acting in his best interest. That he knew Tychon well, that they had been friendly, and that he was willing to murder him in cold blood for wealth and a pretty face would not be anything forgiven much less forgotten any time soon.

"I can't apologize enough for putting you in this situation, Tychon," she said with an incline of her head.

"Rene already explained it to me. I understand... Solae," he replied uncomfortably. Solae wasn't really a princess but she was close enough that he didn't feel quite right not using any sort of honorable address or letting her bow her head in deference. He was a peasant and yet she was treating him with more respect than most of his own social station.

It took another ten minutes or so for Rene and Tychon to put away everything that needed to be secured with their departure. Solae watched the sun lowering itself towards the horizon and was grateful that it was growing closer to dusk. During the night time they were in far less danger; their symmetrical features were less visible, the golden hue of her hair was nearly indiscernible, and their statures drew far less attention without the ability to distinguish detail. Thankful as she was for the scarf she was already dreaming of being free of its confines. Her scalp ached from having a tightly wound arrangement at the base of her skull.

"Let's go," Rene said softly and gestured for her to follow Tychon, who was already eagerly taking long strides towards a gravel and crushed seashell road that led back towards the city and his residence.

"I sent out some messages to friendly contacts I have in the area," she whispered to Rene as they walked alongside each other. Perhaps it was childish and juvenile, but she had reached for his hand, intertwined their fingers, and held it as they kept a more leisurely pace behind their host. All three were glad to be rid of the visual reminders of Vitger and his depravity but sprinting down the street would be too bizarre for nearby residents not to notice. "Only the ones I was certain were loyal to the empress, of course. It will take some time before they are received but we might find someone that can help us. Sending out an alert on the PEA won't guarantee our safety. Duke Tan will probably still want me so he can try to garner support via the PEA, perhaps someone that can intercept the empress's forces, and once he doesn't have a use for us he'll certainly want us dead. We'll need to find a place to hide from the coup's soldiers and from anyone that might still hold a grudge against you for the past. I'm most optimistic about a woman I know named Eira and a fellow linguist by the name of Kovit."

"Solae..." Rene started.

"I've had title since I was born but never did anything with it," she pointed out in anticipation of him expressing some sort of doubts about their plans, "If we can warn the empress there will be recognition and reward, including a chance to have a blessing on our marriage, and a chance to do something for the people that have helped us like Tychon and Julia and the Syshin. If we give up now then we'll forfeit being able to tell the courts of the wonderful people that Duke Tan's treachery didn't reach. Can you imagine what a voice for this planet, its working citizens, and the Syshin could do? I can't abandon that hope just yet."
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Rene squeezed Solae’s hand as they followed Tychon back through the darkening streets. The fisherman was unusually quiet, perhaps focused on his brush with disaster or simply feeling uncomfortable with his guests. The social strata of the Empire were prous at lower levels but grew more rigid the higher one climbed. The revelation of just how stratospherically high above him his daughters rescuers were made him uncomfortable and raised a wall between them, even if only in his own mind. For Rene it was a surprisingly bitter sensation, he knew that he was incredibly privileged to have grown up as he had, one among literal trillions, but everywhere he went he was out of place, cast out of his own class, yet unable to move into another. He squeezed Solae’s hand again though he couldn’t quite articulate the feeling.

It was nearly pitch black by the time the arrived back at Julia and Tychon’s home. The stars were out but the moon was nearly eclipsed and cast little light. What illumination there was came from fires that people had built in their yards, mostly with scavenged building materials, and the occasional generator powered illuminator. The people of San Roayo lived almost hand to mouth and few of them had been willing to spend money on luxuries like redundant generators when more immediate concerns. Rene wondered how long it would be before any organised disaster relief would reach San Roayo and other similarly devastated regions of Panopontus. Ordinarily relief would arrive within days, but with the rebellion interdicting shipping and controlling communications, it could be weeks or months. Duke Tan wouldn’t care about that of course, maybe most nobles wouldn’t care but for all the charges Rene might level against his father, her couldn’t imagine the Elder Du Quentain allowing his clients to suffer. Noblesse Oblige had been one of the few concepts in which his father had taken a personal interest in instructing his son and it pricked Rene’s soul to think of people being neglected by their rulers when they needed them the most. Rene didn’t know that much about Solae’s family, but he was willing to bet that she felt much the same way.

Julia let out an audible sigh of relief as Tychon and the two off-worlders entered the kitchen. She had been holding something beneath the level of the kitchen bench which Rene was willing to bet was a weapon of some sort, though perhaps not a firearm. Rushing across the room she hugged Tychon tightly around the waist. Rene saw the other man wince, as well he might given the fact that he had been shot with a needle stunner on two separate occasions. From the corner of a doorway Damaris peeked, apparently having been sent to bed but equally unwilling to miss out on the excitement. The chemical luminators were glowing more dimly than they had the first night, though the still provided ample light.

“Thank the seas you are alright!” Julia declared. Tychon sat down awkwardly and Julia peeled off his shirt despite his attempts to object. The front of his chest was a mass of purple bruises, punctuated by welts and shallow wounds where the needles had struck.

“What under the seas happened to you?” Julia demanded, but rushed off to retrieve a small medical kit before Tychon could explain. Once she returned she began to dab at the wounds with a pungent smelling antiseptic and Tychon told her the story. Julia’s face grew darker by the moment as she heard of Vitger attempt to kidnap Rene. Tychon had really be collateral damage, but that was of little comfort to Julia.

“And you Rene,” Julia demanded when she was done treating her husband.

“It really isn’t necessary…”

“What is it with men always downplaying their injuries,” Julia demanded of Solae crossly. Rene responded by lifting his shirt. His bruises already had the yellowish green colour that one expected after three or four days and the puncture wounds were already neatly scabbed over. The increased healing factors in his genes didn’t make him immune to harm but they did help him to recover faster than a normal man might. The extent of genetic manipulation used by the nobility was not common knowledge but rumors did circulate.

“Besides, I only got hit the once,” Rene explained as Julia set down her first aid kit and produced three bowls of cold food. The dish appeared to be some sort of mangrove root, sliced thin and then fried in fish oil. Rene found the texture to be mildly unpleasant but that still placed it far above a lot of things he had eaten in the past few years. Tychon produced a bottle of wine, apparently brewed from some sort of local berry and poured them all a glass. Rene accepted it politely, though what he truly wanted to talk to Solae privately, to discuss what she had learned and the people she had contacted while at the communications center. They had been on the defensive thus far, reacting to the moves of the Rebels rather than making any overt moves of their own. It felt good to think that they might be able to take the offensive soon, even if he wasn’t entirely sure what that would mean.

______________________

Trallius Major
Day 7

The war room was quiet save for the low background hum of live processors. Emperor Alexius Tan’s tall leather boots, deliberately military in style despite his own lack of service in that arena, rang on the marble floor as he paced. The war room had started life as a large ballroom, a fact that its blue marble floor and richly carved walls still attested to, but over a period of months it had become the nerve center of the Duke’s Rebellion. Powerful computer consoles were bolted to the floor, fed by conduits of fibre links that vanished into holes drilled into the priceless wall carvings, holographic projections shimmered in the air displaying data on a dozen different situations currently going on throughout the Eastern Cross. Traullius Major, as a sector capital, had dozens of better locations for such a task. Fleet command, one of the early targets of the rebels possessed a hundred times the facilities as did any one of the major administrative complexes, even the data centers in the palace were better suited from a hardware perspective. The problem was that each of those systems had been set up by Imperial Command and had, until recently, been operated by Imperial personnel.

When he had initially conceived of the idea of overthrowing the weak and pathetic government of which he was the titular head, Tan had realised that secrecy was essential. No facility that Imperial Intelligence knew of could be truly safe, and so, under the guise of a major remodel of his palace, he had converted this wing to serve as his base of operations. At the very center of the room stood a large cylinder of gold inlaid quartz. It sat on a pedestal from which cabling radiated like a spiders web to each of the consoles. The quartz pulsed with an inner light as trillions of quantum entangled particles spun and flickered in response to signals from its sister units all over the Stellar Empire. Only high level Imperial communications were sent via the PEA, instantly delivering the will of the Empress and her bureaucracy across billions of light years, orders for Fleet movements, Imperial decrees, Intelligence reports, and all of it completely impenetrable to Tan. He glowered at the PEA, willing the thing to give up its secrets.

“Your Highness.” Tan nearly jumped out of his skin at the unexpected words. Several of the technicians who had been studiously studding their screens while the Duke glowered, also started.

“I’ve told you not to sneak up on me General!” Tan snapped, irritable to be startled. General Antigony Bhast, commander and chief of the Dukes forces, smiled apologetically. At least, the Duke had learned to interpret it as a smile. Bhast was a veteran of a dozen campaigns and had risen through the ranks through her own drive and cunning, her eyes focused well beyond the horizon, perhaps on nothing in this universe. She was difficult to read, even for him.

“That is why I stomped over here like a cadet on parade My Lord, unfortunately you were too absorbed in your contemplation of the PEA to notice.” Tan grimaced and made a gesture of dismissal fluffing his mustache in a habitual gesture.

“Have you something to report or have you just decided to take up startling your Emperor as a hobby?” Tan demanded. Bhast smiled again, though the expression didn’t touch her cold eyes. She gestured at a nearby screen and it flickered to life, displaying footage of a starship streaking into the sky, streaming atmosphere through punctures in its hull the holographic overlay of a crosshair made it clear that it was gun camera footage. The ship vanished into the sky and the loop began again, starting with the ship rising from a plantation of some kind. A side bar appeared giving the ship name as ‘Bonaventure’ followed by class, registration number and various other pertinent datum.

Rather than give the general the satisfaction of asking what the footage was, Tan merely waited for Bhast to go on.

“This was shot on New Concordia. Three days ago,” Bhast said at last, making another gesture. Holographic portraits of two individuals flashed up one showing the familiar and beautiful face of Marquessa Solae Falia, the other an unfamiliar young man in drab battle dress.

“It seems the Marquessa fled the planet aboard the vessel, the pilot will be disciplined for firing on so high value a target,” Bhast explained in evident disapproval. Tan stared hungrily at the picture of the noblewoman, perhaps the one surviving person in the Eastern Cross who could unlock the PEA network. She had been so close and now…

Tan reached out a hand, pointing a finger at the portrait of the man. The system, a complex set of holographic cameras, interpreted the gesture and bought the portrait to a quarter mask of the screen. Rene Quentain. Private. Service Number 7203499. The holo was clear, taken from a military or immigration database rather than from live video. Tan frowned.

“A nobody,” he declared after a moment. Bhast nodded her head, though in acknowledgement of the words rather than agreement.

“We aren’t sure, Marine neo-nomyns being what they are, but analytics suggests some genetic enhancement. There is a Du Quentain family on Capella.”

Tan shook his head shrinking the image by closing his fingers.

“So he is what? Imperial Intelligence or something?” the Duke asked, enlarging the portrait of Solae.

“No way to know, not yet anyway. Perhaps a nobody in the right place at the right time,” Bhast said in a neutral tone of voice that declared she didn’t believe that for a second.

“Those idiots let her slip through their fingers,” Tan growled.

“I trust that…” Bhast was already nodding.

“Governor Cohen and his family have already been executed for crimes against the people,” the general confirmed.

“But his intelligence chief did provide me with this analysis.” The hologram shifted again to a star chart of the worlds in the immediate vicinity of Panopontus. Colored streaks of light mapped out the jump lanes across the starscape.

“They pulled satellite imagery of the ship coming down, a local tramp freighter taking slaves off book we think.” A grainy satellite image of the ship landing and a figure climbing up onto and slipping inside followed by what might have been muzzle flash.

“It didn’t have a chance to refuel before it lifted and we were able to sample its trail and calculate the ratio of the fuel burn and consumption rate.” A sphere appeared around New Concorida, representing the outer limit of the ships projected jump range. Six worlds light up with a bright red. Crelian, Trap 351, Pondak’s World, Panopontus, Jaseem’s Reach and Port St Croix. Tan frowned distastefully.

“So we know they have to be on one of these six worlds, but we don't know which. There was a Marine detachment on Trap 351 wasn’t there?” he asked his chief. The Eastern Cross was comprised of several hundred worlds, there was now reason of the Duke to be aware of every settlement, but he was familiar with most of the garrisons from the past weeks brutal extermination campaign.

“Yes, destroyed four days ago by Captain Gellan’s squadron, orbital strike,” Bhast agreed.

“Analysis suggests Trap 351 as the most likely choice, particularly given this Quentain’s presence, Port St Croix was the next most likely followed by Pondak’s World. The Intelligence chief on New Concordia dispatched vessels to all of the ports as soon as he could, though these were commendered merchantmen rather than warships of course.“

“Of course,” Tan responded sourly. He glared at the star chart trying to put himself in the heads of the fugitives. The obvious choice was to run to the nearest Imperial base. They clearly hadn’t done that or they would have been snapped up by the squadron at Trap 351. The next obvious choice was to make a run for the celestial center of the Stellar Empire, which meant passing through the jump nexi at Aquillia or Dunbarton. Such an attempt bordered on the suicidal as the ships had description of Falia and orders to stop any ships from passing through the system.

“I want units sent to all six worlds, pick teams of experts to hunt them down,” Tan declared decisively.

“Already done my Lord,” Bhast responded, but the man who called himself Emperor had already turned to resume staring into the impenetrable heart of the quartz, though in his mind he saw only a beautiful face framed by aurite hair, and all the power it represented.

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"I've been thinking," Solae began conversationally to no one in particular, though Rene would clearly gain the most benefit from the discussion she was about to instigate, "I don't believe that Duke Tan necessarily has quite as large as an advantage as we initially speculated. While he will likely still descend on Panopontus, and other planets in relative close proximity to New Concordia, the impact it will have on the three of you will be minor comparatively so long as he doesn't realize we were housed by your family."

"What do you mean?" Julia inquired curiously. Tychon was a simple man who didn't much care about the political landscape but now that they had been thrown into it his wife was much more intrigued. This was a rare glimpse into the world of the wealthy, the privileged, and the powerful, something she may never again have such insight into. There was something to be said about understanding the people that made so many decisions that had a direct impact on their lives.

"We can all agree he must have been planning and preparing for this coup for some time," the marquise stated assertively. "Before he launched his initial assault he would have consolidated his resources and moved as many of his assets to his home on New Concordia to make them accessible. The people loyal to him almost certainly did the same with his forewarning- but I doubt that any of the nobility he assassinated did."

"Does that matter?" Julia asked though she knew it did or else Solae would not be bringing it up now.

"Families like mine, the Falias, do not have just one residence on one planet nor in one city. We have holdings on several worlds and in more than one sector. As a security measure, and for the sake of convenience, our funds are spread across more than one account so that traveling or managing day to day operations for a businesss venture on opposite sides of the universe- figuratively speaking- won't be impeded. It creates incredibly complex accounting for some noblemen and noblewomen, but it means if I take a ship to Cappela I do not have to physically carry credit with me nor do I have to worry about how long it will take for Cappela's banks to acknowledge what New Concordia shows to be in my account. Does that make some sense?"

"So he isn't as rich as everyone he killed put together," Tychon remarked with a rueful barking laugh.

"Not at all. With the time he's had he's probably forced his way into the New Concordia treasury and stolen everything there, but he won't be able to get any further regardless of how talented his saboteurs are, and his position as a Duke won't let him levy on any bank accounts outside his control. If any person of title could use their identity to get into another person of title's finances there would be a war even the empress would be unable to stop," Solae joked lamely.

"What this all means is the resources he has are limited. Trade in and out of New Concordia can't continue as it was because then news of the rebellion would spread. Duke Tan can't forge new agreements either as that would require revealing what has transpired and what position of authority he has assumed. Other planets will refuse to trade once they understand, if not because of loyalty to the empress, but because it's economically safer to stay in good relations with an expansive empire than a fledgling one, and because any noble associated with trading with Duke Tan will forfeit his comfortable status within the empire, including all the attached luxuries."

"And people are gonna get suspicious after a while of not hearing from your embassy?" Julia asked quietly.

Solae nodded. "They will. Duke Tan has to act quickly and claim as much as he can before the imperial fleet arrives. He'll prioritize planets with the most useful resources that don't have to be shipped off-world for processing, and planets with the least amount of military presence to minimize his losses, and depending on how arrogant he is he'll try to also select worlds with less nobility that he has to convince to bow the knee or not undermine his power."

"After the devastating typhoon here on Panopontus, and so much of your coral being exported before it is turned into goods of value, he'll set his sights on others first," Rene added more quietly as he slowly ate his dinner.

"Progress is going to be slow for Duke Tan," Solae confirmed with a nod, "and in another week or two even if we can't reach a PEA there will be small groups sent to investigate why diplomatic cables and decrees are receiving no response."

"How long after that until they know?" Julia inquired softly with a lowered voice.

"I don't know. Rene is a marine so he might have a better idea but... that might take some time," she admitted. "Do you think Damaris would fancy being a marquise herself?"

Tychon choked on his drink and very nearly spit it all out on the table. Rene, who was seated next to him, patted him on the back several times to help him clear both his throat and lungs. For her part Julia was just staring at Solae in stunned silence. After everything they had already been through Solae was glad she could elicit such a shocked reaction from her new 'family.' Before they could vocalize a protest she cleared her throat.

"Should I make it safely to Cappela I think I will be given quite a bit of social latitude," she declared. It was the understatement of the century. Given her proven fealty to the empress she would almost certainly be rewarded handsomely. Marquise was not the ceiling on titles granted by the throne and it was all but guaranteed that with the current trajectory that Solae would be crowned with a higher status than what she currently held. Even if she did not, it was the favorites of the reigning ruler that set standards for the rest, and public critique of someone so recognized would be shunned at a minimum. Without children Solae could declare anyone heir to the Falia line she wished. Her cousins could argue and litigate the matter but they would find counsel reluctant to represent anyone against an intergalactic hero.

"Miss Solae!" Tychon finally stammered.

"One of the few boons of my parents being deceased is that I am technically the matriarch of the Falia family as the most direct living descendant," Solae continued on undeterred. Rene could see that she was highly amused and enjoying herself. She evidently found it very satisfying to praise and impart gifts onto those that were deserving but so unprepared for her generosity. "That means only the empress and Rene can try to tell me what to do," she said with a wink at her soldier fiancee.

"That really isn't necessary," Julia tried to argue furtively.

"Julia," Solae said with dramatically feigned scorn, "are you also going to refuse the credit we brought to pay for the fuel that Vitger so kindly donated? I should be getting to bed." She stood, kissed Rene on the cheek, and made her way to bed as Julia tried desperately to move her lips in coherent words. Though she was unable to form an argument it didn't truly matter- Solae was so obstinate that they all knew the minute she had decreed that she and Rene would be turning over the credit in their pockets for the recovery of San Roayo that absolutely nothing would convince her otherwise. There was a far better chance of success arguing with the reinforced walls of the communication center downtown.
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The low subsonic thrum woke Rene before dawn. Solae shifted beside him and he tightened his arms around her naked body instinctively. She made a pleased sound and wriggled distractingly against him. Rene felt himself begin to stiffen in spite of the fact he knew he should be focusing on the sound that had woken him. His fingers stroked her hair for a moment longer before he forced himself to sit up. From head to toe his body ached. Just because someone was genetically enhanced didn’t mean they could shrug off the effects of electrical trauma. It didn’t really matter. That which could be ignored was irrelevant. Solae made another sleepy sound, their lovemaking had kept them up later than was probably wise. It had been different, more restrained than usual due to the fact they didn’t want to wake the whole house but passionate and intense nonetheless. He didn’t want to have to face the world right now, he wanted to wake Solae up and remind both of them that no matter what was going on out in the galaxy, they were both here and both still very much alive.

The cheap glass windows were beginning to rattle in their frames. The door swung open and Tychon’s head appeared. In the dim predawn light he looked drawn and skeletal, though Rene knew that was a trick of illumination.

“Jumpers?” Rene asked, pulling the blanket up to cover Solae. Tychon nodded his head obviously not surprised that Rene had already woken to the sound.

“We will be right with you,” he said curtly. Tychon nodded and closed the door. Solae opened her eyes and looked up at him in sleepy interrogation.

“Jumpers coming, probably nothing to worry about,” he explained. Solae sat up fully awake now. Jumpers were a catchall term used for various atmospheric rotary aircraft that were in use throughout the Empire. Each vehicle had a bank of four or more rotors mounted in separate housings that kept them aloft. Jumpers were more maneuverable and far more efficient than pure jet aircraft would have been, and could take of and land vertically to deliver everything from medical supplies to troops.

“Could they be for us?” Solae asked in concern. Rene shook his head.

“There are too many, and if they were coming for us they would have been here quicker, this is probably a survey team or the first stages of a relief effort.”

Judging by the sound the jumpers were coming in from the south east, that meant they wouldn’t overfly the Bonaventure’s hiding place, not that they could spot the ship in the darkness with its systems powered down. Once daylight broke though, an overflight might very well reveal the ships location.

Rene dressed quickly, pulling on a spare set of Tychon’s fishing gear, comprised of a waterproof yet breathable shirt and a pair of heavy duty pants with numerous pockets for equipment. Despite Tychon’s offer of shoes he kept his own boots. They were comfortable and practical as well as being a vestige of his uniform that he was reluctant to give up. It didn’t make any intellectual sense but emotionally he felt like so long as he kept his boots he was in someway honoring the memory of Bowie and the other marines who had died in the Rat Trap.

Solae’s analysis of the Duke’s position made more sense the more Rene thought about it. That was only natural, she was a diplomat trained to think in those terms afterall. It also explained the exorbitant reward being offered for Solae. Tan needed the PEA not just to communicate with his partisans, but to convince other aristocrats that he had a chance, he needed to contact others and encourage them to rise up as well. The Eastern Cross was a wide territory, but history and economics both showed that if the Empress could focus her forces, no one magnate could hope to oppose her. It might take weeks or months for the bureaucracy to dispatch investigators, and for the death of those investigators to be noticed and trigger a military reconnaissance. If Tan didn’t have the PEA system working by then, it was all over bar the firing parties. That should have made Rene feel better, but the Empire Triumphant was an abstract, and the short term danger to the woman he loved was far more important to him.

It also meant that Solae’s entreaties to the other aristocrats in the Cross were more likely to bear fruit. While major families were likely to have either joined or been destroyed, smaller ones would continue to oscillate between the two camps. Tan represented a serious threat and was willing to buy partisans for his cause, but as Solae had said, those that stayed loyal and particularly those who actively opposed the rebels would be rewarded. Tan’s brutal had created a great many open positions afterall. Even knowing Solae was alive might be enough incentive for fence sitters to continue waiting, and of course, more incentive for the Duke to hunt her down and drag her off in chains. Rene’s anger began to kindle at the thought of Solae’s body being part of the reward for her capture. Quietly, he promised himself that if fate ever gave him the chance, he would discuss the matter with Duke Alexis Tan. Discuss very briefly.

Julia Tychon and Damaris were already up and gathered in the kitchen. The girl looked upset that Solae was going to be leaving her large eyes downcast. Julia seemed to be unable to decide between relief and fear whereas Tychon merely looked resolved. Rene wondered if Julia had told her daughter of Solae’s offer. Probably not. He rather doubted any of them realised how serious she was. Solae’s family had suffered greatly in the past weeks and it was both her right and her responsibility to strengthen it. Adoption was a long established legal custom, though it was more usual between noble families, its use on commoners was not unknown. Damaris herself might suffer for being elevated to the nobility without the usual suite of genetic enhancements, but that would be no bar to her advancement in Imperial service. Few people would snub a member of the Falia clan and Damaris’ children would stand as high and proud as any member of that ancient lineage. Solae had mentioned some cousins of hers who converted the title. They were likely to throw a fit as spectacular as it was useless if a fisherman's daughter was inserted into the clan ahead of them.

“It sounds like they are landing at the Harvest Field,” Tychon said as he took a pot of coffee off a chemical heating unit. The Harvest Field was a large airfield on the northern end of San Roayo, the shippers warehouses lined the large open field where the stabilized coral was gathered before being shipped to the capital and the star port.

“Are you sure we don’t need to worry?” he asked nervously. Rene nodded his head.

“I don’t think we should tarry, but if they were looking with us they would have come in as a combat drop. This is probably just relief from the capital, or people surveying for relief anyway.” Rene didn’t mention that it did mean a large influx of people who might recognise Solae for what she was, and an errant noblewoman in a place like this was bound to set of alarm bells.

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