The Burden of History
By: Amber Michelle

Rating: non-offensive
Characters: Shitan, with Krelian, Yui, and Zephyr - in that order.
Notes: Timeline indeterminate. After the Third Invasion. After an interesting talk with Reynard Fox, to whom this is dedicated, I decided Hyuga's language would not be as textbook-perfect in Solaris as it is on the surface or related areas.

Excuse the poor title, but it does fit.

He still couldn't figure out the spike in Anima. Three hours after its first appearance in the readings on his new subjects, well after his ninth cup of coffee, the numbers refused to make sense. And they defied him so seldom that he could not turn away from the program, even when his subordinate begged off of his overtime and left the laboratory to sleep. The hum of machinery waned, settling into sleep mode with rumbles like dragons shifting into hybernation. Hyuga overrode the standby setting at his terminal and got himself another cup of coffee.

Of ten pilots treated with Drive variants and equipped with the new Aerod system, only four were able to make full use of it. Of those four, three showed abnormal levels of a quality that was not registered on his response grid until he accessed the records at the main lab. When they found the back door he'd used to get that information - and they would find it eventually, they always did - he thought his job might truly be on the line.

Ah well. His brother said once, a very long time ago, that easily acquired knowledge was not worth having. Hyuga might argue with that now, but he took it to heart when it was said.

A long list of subjects under the heading 'Contact' winked from the next screen over. All three names had a match in that file, but no explanation was available when he ran a search. It was on the Mother unit, then, and he wasn't sure another foray into their data banks would be wise - not from the same terminal, at any rate. Not on off hours, when it would be traced. Not while--

Hyuga flipped the screen off with more force than strictly necessary, dropping his head into his hands. It clicked onward without his prompting, processing his last command, the spinning of its hard drive loud now the others had fallen silent.

Maybe Kahr was right, and he worked too hard. There was precious little to do with Sigurd and Jesiah gone. Their bracing influence - and, at times, Jesiah's hand dragging him by the collar - had tempted him out of the lab on time at the end of the day, back when Raquel's pale smile was a thing to look forward to instead of a sad, fading memory. The bounty of her kitchen made one believe in the outdated hearth spirits and their grace.

Jesiah was a lucky man. Hyuga knew only one other of like talents, and greater beauty in the scheme of things. She was as distant as the stars, coasting forty kilometers above point zero-four-seven by four-four-eight, high enough to skim over the tallest peak in the range between Nisan and Kislev, but not lofty enough to reach from Etrenank. Their last meeting had preceded the completion of Alkanshel - a mere three weeks ago.

Another two would pass before he would rendevous with the city over Terrane, where his homeland's grip was not so strong. Quiet farms and the occasional scavenger ship dotted Terrane; there were no cities. Surveillence units stood out too much, and Command could not be bothered to supervise the idiot provencials. Never mind that they supplied Shevat with more than fifty percent of its foodstuffs and no small amount of natural fuel. Krelian's nod had said he knew this when Hyuga told him.

If it was not clear already, his commander's response brooked no doubt. The game was to cripple Shevat, not to destroy. He wondered what benefit Solaris derived from the slow torture, whether Gaspar was right after all. His Majesty was silent on the issue, if not wholly impassive.

It had occurred to Hyuga that his master was to thank for the continued success of these meetings. After all, Solarian security was not porous enough for his continued excursions to go unnoticed - he had calibrated most of it himself.

He keyed his secondary terminal. "When will project sixty-eight finish processing?"


The air ducts rattled like the crackle of static, and for a moment the air smelled more of metal than it should have. He ran his hands through his hair slowly, gathering it at the nape where it was just short enough to defy the constraint of bands or ribbons.

You could sleep, the voice came, unbidden. We respond to honor in kind, Solarian.

She had learned the use of his name by the end - and what sounded foreign in Etrenank, what marked him inferior more than the color of his skin or shade of his hair, became a sound he would give his soul to hear. Or, he thought, straightening in his chair and shutting the secondary systems down, at the very least his job.

He left, as she would have suggested, but slept poorly. Lab four's early shift ran a security check every morning at oh-five-hundred. He knew he'd covered his tracks well, and worried anyway, waking at four thirty-seven, and then again at a quarter after six, and finally dragged himself out of bed at seven for a cup of coffee. His hours weren't strict, so he took the time to order breakfast in.

He'd used the kitchen only once, and would have preferred more space instead - another corner to crowd with file cabinets and bookshelves, or the boxes currently serving as table and chair. His uniforms were unpacked, as well as bed linens, tooth brush, razor; he had street clothes packed away somewhere that hadn't seen light in four years, at least. Every so often he'd remember that half-eaten ration bar he'd shoved in a jeans pocket to help drag Sigurd back to his apartment, and wondered with trepidation if it was still there.

The Ministry housed him on the palace grounds, so the walk back to his office was a mere ten minutes, interrupted by security checks and a retina scan.

"Sir!" He nearly jumped out of his skin at the crack of Joan's voice when he entered. "A message for you, sir."

"From?" he asked, taking the envelope.

A shrug. "Command. No idea."

He nodded and went to his terminal, where the project was still clicking away patiently, an hour and fifty minutes to go. Access had gone smoothly, no red flags had been raised within the system.

The envelope in his hand may as well have been crimson. He folded it open to glance at the message, and found what he thought he might. At your convenience, it said. Hyuga was tempted to interpret his convenience as a matter of two hours or so.

"Joan," he called, feeding the missive to the shredder.

"Bmph." His subordinate's mouth was full; the word came out garbled. "Going upstairs?" he said after swallowing.

"Yes. If I'm not back by the time this data finishes compiling, start without me. Save an unmodified file for later."

"And the Anima?" Joan asked, accompanied by the sound of his chair rolling over to the terminal. "I still can't find a damned thing, and I've looked everywhere but the--" Hyuga tilted his head back to his own screen, and Joan rolled his eyes.

"Sorry," he offered with a slight smile, heading for the door. "I'll leave a message next time."

Hyuga took the direct route, assuming he was expected. The main elevator offered him one destination when he swiped his card: fifteenth floor, block A. He feigned patience for the surveillence camera, letting the doors close without jamming the button, crossing his arms behind his back at rest. He couldn't still his thoughts, perhaps, but knew how to shield them from prying eyes.

While he was not one to believe in only one side to a story, Shevat's version of the events leading to his campaign was somewhat of a surprise. The sage had not deigned to speak of them himself, nor had the queen taken time for him. That task was left to Yui. Arguments on historic veracity and semantics were left to Gaspar, whose victory had been assured from the beginning - due in no small part, in Hyuga's opinion, to his own trouble with Shevati linguistic evolution. His instructors had neglected to prepare him for that.

His superior's part in this drama, however, was left unclear. And while he was tempted to ask, sure his association with Shevat since the invasion was no secret to certain individuals, even Hyuga did not have the gall to question the man directly. Such was not his priviledge during meetings of this sort.

Oh, but he wanted to. The Anima factor would come to him in time. History would continue to evade him, if her mouthpieces were as stubborn as Yui's grandfather.

The usual sounds of the palace at full function - air ducts, cameras, terminals and checkpoints - deserted him upon reaching the fifteenth floor. He didn't know if that meant the insulation was better, or if his superior scorned his own security system. The hall was empty and the light twice as bright, as if to make up for it, and the few doors he passed were locked, their key pads glowing dull, earthy red. He'd left his sword at the apartment, and wished he hadn't. If nothing else, it was something to hold on to.

It all returned when he passed his hand over the panel leading to his commander's personal laboratory, lit green in invitation - the whirr of computer terminals and the cooling system, and a more comfortable level of light that did not refract inconveniently from the inside lense of his glasses. The area to his right was dark, but an array of displays brightened the far left corner, cradling the sunken research area and its occupant in pastel glow.

"Sir." Hyuga bowed at the edge of the steps, squelching the temptation to look up. Humility never struck amiss. "Reporting as ordered."

"Hyuga Ricdeau." The reply was crisp and very nearly emotive, Krelian still a thin silohuette when he turned away from his readouts. "I've been obliged to change the keys to the central unit three times during the last year."

Now that he was confronted with the situation, it seemed almost funny. He swallowed the reflexive chuckle that tried to worm its way past his defenses. "I take full responsibility, sir. May I offer an apology?"

"Your obedience would be preferable," was the flat reply. Krelian allowed an uncomfortable silence to stretch, twisting to type something, and then joining Hyuga at the top of the short stair, to speak more quietly. "Cain has advocated granting you full access from the beginning. Since we cannot stop you from accessing information above your security level--" there was only a hint of annoyance, like the bitter aftertaste of tea brewed a few seconds too long, yet his eyelids did not even flicker, "--I concede the point. Look there," he said, nodding to a holographic readout. "Tell me what you see."

Hyuga looked as bidden, squaring his shoulders rather than shifting them uncomfortably, as he had the urge to do. His superior left his side, and reading became a little easier.

At first he wasn't sure what he was looking for; the diagram was surprisingly archaic, overly simplstic, and the notes were arranged differently than he was used to, in Ignasian dialect. They depicted the body of a child, or perhaps a very young woman. Blossoms of red indicated abnormal nerve activity, but the formulae were too complicated for him to follow. "Life-suspension treatment?" he asked, frowning. "I'm afraid this is not my area of expertise."

"Close." Krelian returned to his side. Whatever annoyance had given life to his features before melted away. "If you choose to accept the task I have prepared, perhaps you will learn more."

A sidelong glance at his commander revealed nothing. "And this task is--?"

"You must deliver a treatment to the Imperial physician in Shevat. She will know what to do with it. This shouldn't require any experience on your part."

Hyuga stared at the commander's offer - a small, innocent black case the size of his hand, that appeared heavy from the way Krelian held it. He accepted it with an odd flutter in his stomach and glanced at the readout again. He had never seen her likeness, but--

"That's right," Krelian said, anticipating his thoughts.

"And, I am--" Hyuga cleared his throat, voice suddenly threatening to go hoarse. "I am supposed to simply--" he gestured with the case.

Krelian's eyes narrowed, perhaps in amusement. His mouth didn't curve to accompany them. "You've proven a singular talent for burrowing your way into places you do not belong." He descended to his workstation. "This mission has highest priority. See to it."

Hyuga clutched the case tightly, lingering in spite of the obvious dismissal. Questions crowded at the tip of his tongue, and he didn't dare ask any of them.

"Go, Hyuga. She has been waiting long enough."

"But--" He swallowed bitterness and finally uttered it. "Why?"

Krelian regarded him for another uncomfortable moment, ghostly beneath the shifting, patterned illumination of the readouts. His voice came soft and dry, a knife's edge. "We cannot abandon Her Majesty to such discomfort." An eyebrow lofted sharply. "Go."

He left.


Seven hours stretched between Etrenank and Shevat's current location. A small transport was diverted to his service, and Hyuga spent most of the trip esconced in his gear, reading over the information uploaded to Fenrir's system from the main lab. Krelian had not abandoned him to complete ignorance - nor had he left Shevat to guess at their motives, as it appeared when they entered the reach of Aphel's outermost sensor field.

He should have guessed. Though his transport was asked to turn back and dock at a nearby island, Fenrir passed through the shield without incident.

Yui waited for him on the other side of the glass while he docked. Somehow that made it more difficult to leave his gear and cross the intervening space. The guard at the door eyed his sword, but he wasn't asked to leave it. An improvement.

"You've been asked to stay at the palace this time," was her quiet greeting, voice almost inaudible until the door slid closed on the noise of the docking bay.

He blinked against the light, managing an intelligent "I... see." At least he managed to check his sigh.

She smiled at the hesitation in his voice - or perhaps she sensed the disappointment. "Her Majesty wishes to speak with you after the treatment has taken effect, and I will be attending her. It may take a few days."

"Then you will--" He reached into his pocket for the case, and she reached to still his hand.

"Later," she said. "Let's get you safely to the palace, first. I have something prepared for you."

She squeezed his hand before letting go, and he fought the temptation to take it back, following her obediently to the elevator. The hour was late, and Shevat's docks were not what one could call lively at any time, but they encountered others at intervals during their walk and silently agreed that talk should be saved for the privacy of his room.

Hyuga had never been so conscious of his uniform as he was on that walk. The palace was half a kilometer away at worst, and with every step the weight of Aphel's regard grew heavier. Records indicated this was a regular occurence - this exchange of pleasantries between Krelian and the Queen, he'd come to think of it - and he rather pitied his predecessors. Several of them, in fact, had never made it back. He felt that possibility like an itch between his shoulderblades. Yui's presence guaranteed his safety, but one didn't need to be an empath to feel the hostility in every gaze he dared to meet. The soldiers stationed along their path stood rigidly at attention.

They had most reason to hate him. Shevat's forces were small; what chance, he wondered, that all of them had lost friends during his attack? Most of them? What of the families in the homes along their path - did their sons and daughters bear the incisions left by the kiss of his blade? Aphel was a small world.

And he had to concede, remembering what her grandfather had said: perhaps his was just as confined. His own countrymen were evidence enough.

The palace was a welcome respite. Yui led him upstairs and across a terraced chamber. The lamps were dimmed, and the marble floor seemed a polished mirror, striations of gold and silver glimmering in pale imitation. A full guard was on duty for his benefit.

"Here." She opened a nondescript door and waited.

Hyuga offered the case given into his care, and she took it reverently. "Will you be back?"

"Shortly," she confirmed. "A meal should be waiting on the table for you."

She took safety with her when she left, and he watched only a few seconds before closing the door and breathing deeply. Sandalwood tinted the air - and more importantly, a lingering wisp of aroma from the tray on his table. He didn't know or care what it was; Shevati food was stranger than fare on the surface, bearing the unmistakable touch of want, and need, in the limited scope of its recipes.

And it was real. He hadn't yet moved past that novelty.

He ate quickly, and was in the process of shucking his coat off and over the back of a chair when Yui's knock finally came. He reached for the door, one arm still trapped, and let her in.

"God's sake, Hyuga," she said once the door was latched. "Most agents have the sense to dispense with their uniforms before they get here. Do you want a knife in the back?"

He laughed, for what seemed like the first time in weeks, and settled on the corner of his bed. "Would you believe it did not occur to me?"

Yui opened her mouth to answer, then paused. "I might."

"In any case, I do not have suitable clothing for a mission like this." Hyuga ran a hand through is hair, shaking it out. "Only what I usually bring with me."

"Are you telling me all Solarians live in their uniforms?"

He watched her straighten the table, managing a short laugh that became a sigh. Her hands were deceptively slender and pale. She handled cutlery with grace born of long practice, and yet he knew they were strong enough to wield a sword - effectively, or so he heard. "Most do not, no," he finally murmured in reply, busying himself with the task of removing his gloves.

Yui took them before he could toss them aside and sat down beside him. "Is demand of your time so high? I'm surprised Solaris hasn't won the war already."

He snorted. "It is not that easy."

"No?" She smoothed his gloves over her lap, pressing the creases with her fingertips, lingering over the worn spots. Like his hands, they bore the scars of battle. "Even you must step out of the uniform once in a while. Don't tell me this is your life."

Hyuga met her challenging look with a level one of his own, but his argument fell apart before it gained voice. "You sound like Jesiah," he said instead, almost accusingly.

Her mouth turned up, eyes crinkling. They were pale blue, and grounded by the low tone of her voice, the dry lilt. "This Jesiah must be a smart man. Why don't you listen to him more often?"

Why indeed? He nodded grudgingly, accepting her point with a modicum of grace, and worked his fingers into her hair. "Enough of this," he said when she shot him an amused glance. "Are you here to talk about common sense?"

Her smile spoke volumes.


Patience deserted him within the first few hours of the next day. Yui attended the queen, whatever that entailed, and Hyuga found his gaze constantly wandering to the window. Pines crowded the garden platform outside, jostling vivid green shoulders for the priviledge of obstructing his view, pale wisteria spilled over the sills and climbed the walls. Ivy ate away at the stones, snaking into every little crack. The grass had been allowed to run wild, and he was reminded of the plains outside of Elru, overgrown with wheat that undulated in the wind like the surface of an ocean.

He might have shed his outer layers entirely, and still appeared very Solarian. He couldn't think of what it was. Carriage, perhaps - he no doubt stood, walked, moved like a soldier. Such had been trained into him from youth. Ricdeau boys were not allowed to slouch under their burdens. A swordsman did not prevail through poor posture. Were Shevati men lacking in pride? He thought not, judging by their women. Or, perhaps Yui's family was an unfair example against which to measure their countrymen.

Maybe it was his accent. His habits, always more forceful than those of her household in subtle but noticable ways. The way his hair was cut.

Miang once told him he seemed to dissect people with his eyes. He'd denied it, then.

Yui found him pacing before the window, glancing out every so often at the deepening twilight. "Like a caged animal," she commented dryly, and tossed her bundle at him. "Idiot. Come out when you're ready."

Clothes, dark and non-descript. They fit well enough; Yui had a good eye. There was nothing to do about his boots, but the wide leg of his borrowed pants covered most tell-tale signs of their origin. The linen was light and airy, and the memory of his heavy vinyl coat suddenly stifling. He left feeling as if he should be wearing more, and followed the sway of Yui's golden hair out into the garden.

It smelled green - a heavy, almost musky scent of grass and flower petals, bearable for the dry undercurrent of soil, which he'd despised before coming to Shevat. They sat on the bench beneath his windowsill, framed by wisteria vines.

"You could have left sooner," she said, once the night had settled around them.

"Perhaps. I prefer not to push my luck."

"Ah. So polite." She sounded amused, maybe a touch exasperated. "You spent your day thinking too much, instead. Am I right?"

There were times she truly did remind him too strongly of Jesiah. He would have maintained thinking the smartest course, in Solaris, but Shevat demanded a quieter contemplation that was twice as dangerous. "It seemed a good idea at the time."

She leaned back against the wall, gathering her hair in a messy spiral over her shoulder. "What would you do in Solaris?" She didn't look at him, asking only after a short silence. "Lab work? You seem handy at it."

Hyuga had thought it best not to discuss that, in the beginning. He watched her as he answered, determined to face the matter head-on, if she was resolved to ask. "Of various sorts," he said first, the safe answer coming to his lips automatically. Though he would not give too much, he disliked the hollow sound of his habitual response. "Last month I completed a weapons project. At the moment, I am examining complications with a new variant of Drive."

"Drive." Her mouth twisted around the word, pursing as if she'd tasted something bitter.

"It demands a high price for little benefit," he agreed. And it brought to light interesting elements of Krelian's research that he would otherwise be ignorant of, which he wouldn't confess to enjoying, even to himself. "Command finds it useful."

"And you?"

He shook his head. "I prefer my reasoning intact. They seem to agree."

Yui sighed, but the set of her shoulders eased. "They force it on you, don't they? That's what I'm told. I don't understand the philosophy behind it - your numbers aren't great enough to benefit from raw power, your soldiers aren't stable enough..."

"I did not find it beneficial," he reflected. His was an abnormal reaction to the drug. It sharpened his eyesight, boosted his ether levels; perhaps his focus suffered, but he'd managed to keep hold of himself and control the urge to waste his energy. It was the response they hoped for in every subject, that so rarely came about without some kind of technical interference. They'd assigned that problem to him first. "They could not complain when I produced the desired results without it. Others are not so lucky."

"The Abel, superior only with the aid of drugs...?"

Hyuga shrugged. "The discrepancy has not gone unnoticed." He thought of Jesiah, voicing loud and clear - in certain command circles - that his Elements didn't need Drive to get the job done, and yet neglecting to fight its use in the lower eschelons. Joan, whose sarcastic commentary to each case they examined was silenced once they stepped past the door of their laboratory. He repeated what he believed to be true: "Nothing can be done to change it. Rank, merit, it does not matter. Even I could not escape my initial exposure."

"You've more patience for it than I would." Lines of worry marred her brow, but her mouth was still set firmly with frustration. It melted when she found him watching her, and her answering smile was tentative. "I'm sorry to bring it up. I just..."

"You have the right." He leaned back, shifting until he found a comfortable position for his shoulders. His fists were clenched, and he forced himself to loosen them, to close his eyes and take a deep breath of the cool night air and its floral perfume. "It is difficult to reconcile when I speak of it here."

She took his hand, loosening his fingers. He hadn't felt it curl into a fist again. "Do you ever relax?"

His own laugh surprised him with its bitterness.


Morning brought a summons from the queen. There was some relief in this turn of events, but it also meant that he would be returning to Etrenank before the day was out. Hyuga was accepting of this, and not; Yui's smile when they parted the night before was wistful. There was never enough time.

After some debate, they decided he should meet the queen in uniform. She knew who he was, and what, and this was a formal mission that demanded a certain code of conduct. The Shevati costume would not hide his nature. And though the reasoning was ridiculous, he would have felt a coward trying to deceive her. It was the inhabitants of the palace, now teeming with life in the late morning glow, that made him wish for a split second that he'd concealed himself after all. Their glances were more covert, perhaps not as hostile. But they were knowing. Yui, too, walked more quickly than was her habit.

When they halted at another non-descript door, he raised his eyebrows. Yui shook her head. "Her Majesty is better, but not well. She doesn't want to delay your return."

She held out her hands for his sword, and nodded to the door when he gave it to her, both knowing it would make no difference if he had been there to kill the queen. Yui made no move to precede him, so he went in alone, leaving the door open a hair. For whose security, he couldn't say.

It was an old-fashioned sitting room she had chosen to see him in, large and well-appointed with luxuries one only found in books, or the fabricated sets of holovids. The curtains were heavy with brocade and silk linings in the shades of the wisteria outside his window, and their gauzy counterparts diffused the daylight into a cool, misty illumination, billowing in now and again with a burst of the breeze. The furniture was polished wood, the cushions were stuffed thick, and the rug woven in a design he could label with confidence as Fatamid handiwork, an art they had abandoned over two centuries ago in favor of war.

The air was only slightly musty and lacked the metallic tang he associated with home. Shevat contrasted with Etrenank at every turn, and he couldn't tell if they did it on purpose. Yet if the environment was alien, the Queen's gaze felt almost like a taste of home.

"Hyuga Ricdeau, one of Cain's angels." Her voice belonged to a girl a fraction of her age, but it was clear and firm. "Am I correct?"

He bowed, according her the respect he thought he'd reserve for his emperor alone. "At your service, Majesty."

Her eyes demanded it, accepted it, and her frail hand motioned for him to rise. Their depth reminded him uncomfortably of his commander; if her face had not softened into a smile, he might've thought them formed from the same mold. It faded too soon, leaving her pale and thin again, her youth belied by the fragile transluscency of her skin, the ashy pink of her lips.

"Sit," she commanded, after examining him a moment. He was in the chair she pointed out before her hand came to rest again, shifting somewhat uneasily. This seemed to amuse her. "Were there problems in Solaris to delay you? He was late," she added when he blinked in surprise. "Is all well?"

Hyuga searched her gaze, came up with nothing. That was also familiar. "I... not that I am aware of, no." Words seemed as hard to come by, suddenly, as information. "He did not feel the need to inform me, if that was the case."

Zephyr awarded him another smile, this one a touch sardonic and hard to grasp, disappearing as quickly as the last. "Typical." She folded her hands on her lap, and the voluminous sleeves of her mantle enveloped all but her fingertips. He hadn't expected her to appear so delicate; the diagram, he realized, was not as imprecise as he'd thought. "Indulge me, Hyuga Ricdeau."

He lifted his chin warily. "Majesty?"

"I am aware of your continued visits to my city, and the circumstances under which they're made." He tensed, and she waved his reaction away before he could attempt to hide it. "I won't stop it as long as you behave honorably in my holdings. But I would like to question your motives."

It seemed everyone did. "I am here to see Yui," he said simply. He could have lied, but he sensed she would have none of that. She wanted more, but he could only spread his hands.

Zephyr sighed. "Only that?"

He frowned. "Present excepted, I have not come with formal orders since--"

She held up a hand. "As I said, I am aware. Yui has chosen not to be secretive in this matter." He sucked in a breath, her statement stopping him for only a moment, until she said, "Are you aware of the difficulty you are facing, if you pursue her in your present situation?"

To that, he had no glib answer.

"Where do your loyalties lie?" she continued, inexorable. "She refused every proposal until your arrival. Do you plan to lead her along like this forever? To defect? Why are you here?"

"No," he whispered, finally breaking his gaze away. He stared at the carpet, and could not summon any interest in the intricate weave. He wasn't sure which question he was answering - only that it felt right to refuse something. "I am loyal to my emperor," he said with more force.

"While consorting with his enemy?"

"He is not your enemy," Hyuga said quickly, chin snapping up again. He wanted to fidget under her glare. "Nor, it seems, is Krelian."

It was her turn to glance away, and he scored a small victory - a drop in the bucket. She was not deterred long. "I suspect Krelian has taken his own side in these matters." Her reply was crisp. "It is not for the good of Shevat, whatever he might think. And you, Ricdeau - whose side do you cling to while consorting with my champion?"

He'd thought of this many times - too many to count, and she couldn't know that. He had to stifle his glare, and yet wasn't sure he'd have had the courage to face her with such an expression. "It should not be a matter of sides!"

"No," Zephyr said more softly. "But it is."

Hyuga hated her for that, and knew it was true. He'd walked into it with his eyes open, and fully intended to keep walking, as long as he could. It was no burden to subvert the administration that would have kept him under its boot, if only they could have ignored his talent. And there was no conflict of interest in stepping around Krelian, who refused to be deceived or, it seemed, bothered by the situation, except to take advantage of it.

Typical, she'd said. How typical.

"Thank him for me," the queen said.

He rose and bowed, relieved at the dismissal. "I will. Thank you for your hospitality."

Though he did not relish another meeting with Krelian, Hyuga was glad to leave the queen and her city behind for the first time. He only regretted that another two weeks stood between him and his scheduled meeting with Yui, and even that promise was tempered, now, with Zephyr's scolding.

He wanted to hate her, but knew she was right. It could not continue like this forever. For the first time, Hyuga thought he understood why Sigurd and Jesiah defected. That was not a decision one made lightly, and yet it was tempting all the same.

I am loyal to my emperor. He didn't need to reassure himself of that; Cain was in need of nothing if not loyalty. He simply wasn't convinced that his loyalties need be mutually exclusive.

There was always a way. He would find it, eventually.