Her belly full, Lhora gave her father a kiss on the cheek and left the kitchen. It was good to know that the vibes she’d been getting from the Coltrosstians were identical to the ones he’d received. They both agreed the Sarpi and his men were up to something. They just couldn’t figure out what. Not until the right question was asked, and the men were forced to outright lie.
            “I get the feeling they’re taking extra care to watch what they say, now that they know there’s a torgart in their midst,” she’d laughed.           
            Fallmin chuckled. “They can watch their tongues all they want. Their feelings will give them away as surely as what they say…or don’t say. Pass me the jeerfla. Either it’s especially delicious tonight, or I’m especially hungry.” Taking the bowl, he peered at her. “Speaking of their feelings, yours were on display to me. You do know that, don’t you?”

            “Yes, and I know what you’re going to say. You noticed I’m interested in the Sarpi’s son.” She winked at him. “But not in the way you believe.”

            Fallmin raised a hand. “I never said you were. Are you going to approach him indirectly while he’s here?”

            “I hadn’t considered it. I do admit I’d like to converse with him when his father’s not around. Or any of their men.”

            “If you do, you’ll have to be careful what you say.”

            She grinned at him. “I know you feel you have to remind me. I assure you I’m prepared for that…if that moment comes. Speaking of watching tongues, I’m very proud of the way Mother warded off their pathetic attempts to find out about our fleet.”

            The commander snorted. “I will pass your praise on to her. She’ll be very glad to know how quickly you’re learning.”

            Lhora stopped in the hallway and leaned against the wall. One day her mother would hand the red robes of the Esstika to her, the way her grandmother had given them to Kai, and her great-grandmother before her. Sometimes the robes were given upon the death of the Esstika. Sometimes they were given when the current ruler became too ill to serve. Age-wise, Kai Vul Est Niram was considered to be young. She still had many decades wherein she could serve before handing their half of the planet over to Lhora. Personally, Lhora admitted to herself that she would be content to remain one of the guards and never assume the robes. But she knew she’d inevitably have to don them. Just not now. Later. Years and years later, she hoped.

            Reaching a window, she gazed out into the clear night sky and the two nearly full moons floating above the horizon. Twin moons following almost parallel paths around their world. Geet led her younger sister Vit by a good hour, as if showing her the way to go.
            The breeze was negligible. The temperature was slightly on the cool side. Lhora breathed in the fresh air and discovered she wasn’t the least bit sleepy. “It’ll do me good to stretch my legs. Walk off some of this meal before I call it a night.” It sounded like sage advice, and she nodded to herself.

            She passed a couple of guards on her way to the side door that opened into a small garden. That private area was visible from their bedrooms, but not from the main gate or entrance. The men acknowledged her before she slipped outside.

            The moons were not yet visible from here as the rock wall blocked them from view. She loved being able to sit and watch them ascend a second time. Opening the metal gate, she took the path around the far side of the manse to where it intersected with the rear entrance.

            “Good eve,” the guard standing duty greeted her. He didn’t refer to her by her proper name or title, and wouldn’t as long as the Coltrosstians were present. They fiercely guarded keeping the identity of their next Esstika secret in case there was any planned attempt on her life.

            “Good eve. How are things faring?”

            “Quiet, thankfully.”

            She flashed him a smile. “I won’t be long. I just need to walk off some of my late meal before I retire.”

            “Enjoy your walk. The sky is clear, and the moons are beautiful tonight.”

            “That they are.”

            She continued down the path and toward the open courtyard. From here, the two pinkish orbs appeared brighter and bigger in the heavens. Their combined light was enough to where none of the sconces had been lit, and none would be until they vanished below the horizon.
              Along the far end was a semi-circle of stone benches. Going over to them, she sat on the nearest one to watch the moons rise.

            She’d lost track of time when an odd sound caught her attention. Partly drawing her sword, she got to her feet and strained her ears, quickly recognizing the sound of approaching footsteps.

            “Ho! Who goes there?” She expected a guard to be checking out the area. Maybe looking to see if she was still here after being informed by another soldier of her presence. She wasn’t prepared to see the Sarpi’s son emerge from the shadows. He paused when he emerged into the moonslight.

            “I thought it might be you,” he remarked. “I saw you from the window over there.” He turned and pointed to the opposite side of the courtyard.

            Lhora wondered why the Coltrosstian would be allowed to roam freely, especially after dark. Her eyes dropped to the sword at his hip. She got the impression he was adept at it, but was he skilled from being in combat or simply from practice?

            “What are you doing here? I thought you were sleeping on your ship.”

            “I talked Vadris Boe into spending the night here in the manse with me.”

            Lhora allowed the little smile to cross her lips. “The Sarpi’s son is afraid to stay alone?”

            The man’s eyes widened. “How did you… Oh. The torgart told you.”

            “What he didn’t know was your name.”

            “I’m Duren Sim Sarpen Sov.”

           “Hello, Duren Sim Sarpen Sov. I take it you’re having trouble sleeping?”

            “If you were lying in a strange bed inside the manse of your enemy, wouldn’t you?”

            “Then why not stay on your ship?”

            “Because I’m curious.”

            “About what?”

            “About Beinights in general. About the way you live. Your food. Your homes. Plus, I was hoping I might run into you again.”

            He was telling her the truth. His sincerity allowed her to relax somewhat.

            “What are you doing out here this late at night?” he queried.

            “I didn’t get to eat until after you and your father were finished. I was feeling a bit stuffed, and thought I’d come outside, get some exercise and fresh air, and watch the moons rise.” She sat down on the bench, leaving plenty of space for him to sit on the stone next to her if he wanted to.

            Duren advanced closer but chose to sit on another bench a few feet away. Turning back to the rising moons, she kept herself attuned to his vibes, resisting the urge to stare at him instead. His proximity was doing strange things to her, setting her nerves on edge in ways she hadn’t felt in a very long time. But in a good way.

            “So you’re one of the Esstika’s guards?” He was initiating small talk. Lhora immediately went on the defensive.

            “I’m part of her security detail.”

            “You must be pretty good at what you do.”

            She raised an eyebrow at him. “What makes you say that?”

            “You’re awfully young to be part of her military.”

            “My age has nothing to do with my ability.”

           “Then I applaud your skills…and your station, Lhora.”

             She jerked her head around, her reaction automatic upon hearing her name. A name they hadn’t been given, as far as she knew. Too late, she realized she’d made a mistake when a wide grin crossed Duren’s face.

            “There’s a lot you can tell us because of your closeness to the Esstika.” He chuckled. “You’ll be able to tell us everything about her. About her family, if she has one. About her private life, as well as her work life. All the juicy little details, including her weaknesses and vulnerabilities.”

            He got up and walked toward her. Something had come over him. A change she couldn’t put her finger on. Jumping to her feet, she detached her shurr sword from its clip and swung it over her head.

            Duren slowly shook his head. “It won’t do you any good, Lhora.”

            “Why not? What are you talking about?”

            “Your people made a serious mistake in allowing us to keep our weapons.”

            She stared at him, then realized he hadn’t gone for his sword. In fact, he’d made no overt threatening gesture other than take a few steps in her direction. She hesitated, and at that moment she sensed another presence.

            She began to whirl around to defend herself when something struck the back of her head. There was a flash of white pain. She never got the chance to wield her weapon before she collapsed.