Read an Extended Excerpt From Kate Elliott’s Furious Heaven
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Read an Extended Excerpt From Kate Elliott’s Furious Heaven

Nov 10, 2023

On the eve of Eirene's bold attack on the rich and populous Karnos System, an unexpected tragedy strikes the republic…

We’re thrilled to share an extended excerpt from Kate Elliott's Furious Heaven, the highly anticipated sequel to the thrilling space adventure Unconquerable Sun—out today from Tor Books.

The Republic of Chaonia fleets, under the joint command of Princess Sun and her formidable mother, Queen-Marshal Eirene, have defeated and driven out an invading fleet of the Phene Empire, though not without heavy losses. But the Empire remains undeterred. While Chaonia scrambles to rebuild its military, the Empire's rulers are determined to squash Chaonia once and for all. They believe their military might is strong enough to defeat the enemy, but they also secure a secret alliance with a deadly religious sect skilled in the use of assassination and covert ops, to destabilize the republic.

On the eve of Eirene's bold attack on the rich and populous Karnos System, an unexpected tragedy strikes the republic. Sun must take charge or lose the throne. Will Sun be content with the pragmatic path laid out by her mother for Chaonia's future? Or will she choose to forge her own legend? Can she succeed despite all the forces arrayed against her?

The heart of Lady Chaos is a knot, which some call binding fate while others thought it nothing more than luck's capricious cull. Or call, if destiny has any power. Philosophers debate these questions now and have debated them for untold years. Do humans live in harmony with fate? Or do they suffer powerless in life as fate's demands adhere to a set pattern? We are the spears cast at the furious heaven.

"That we are spears means we have been loosed from the hands of those who brought us into the world. It doesn't mean we are forever bound to the trajectory they choose for us," says Sun Shān, heir to the throne of the Republic of Chaonia. "Fate is not just the command of heaven. It is also a matter of strategy."

She pauses with perfect timing and flattering intensity to survey us, her loyal Companions.

We sit on cushions beneath the red gazebo. In the night courtyard a lamp shines, casting a golden aura over the outdoor hearth, the troughs of flowers, and the expanse of pavement where we drill morning and afternoon. The sounds of washing-up drift in from the kitchen, which opens off the courtyard. I would far rather be on mess duty than trying to hold my own in this cutthroat crowd.

Three of her loyal Companions are paying close attention to the long-winded discussion of the Sayings of the Elder Sages, which is the sort of evening entertainment a meticulously educated princess like Sun and her royal-academy-trained intimates naturally love best. Since I am neither meticulous nor royal academy trained, I am picking my way through platters of five-spice pumpkin seeds, lightly salted edamame, and the particularly delicious red bean buns.

"Is that what ‘spears’ means?" counters the Honorable James Samtarras, tugging on the obnoxious flatcap he always wears, although I couldn't tell you if he sleeps in it. "Trajectories? Commands? Strategies?"

Sun gives him one of her put-up-or-shut-up stares. "Did you have an interpretation to offer, or are you just sticking spokes in the wheel of discussion?"

"Spokes," I mutter under my breath as I toy with another bun. Two is usually my limit, but I feel I can make an exception for a third given how long this discussion on knots, fates, and destinies has ground on and the likelihood it will continue to grind for another hour at least.

James doesn't hear me because, like the others, he is really into these debates. "The passage refers to the ancient Argosies that fled the Celestial Empire's fall. The spears are a reference to the physical ships. Get it?"

Sun flicks her fingers as if to swat away a fly. "That's the hill you want to die on, James?"

"Sometimes the literal explanation is the best one," retorts James.

The Honorable Alika Vata plucks a sour chord from his ukulele, punctuating the musical commentary with the handsomely mocking smile he reserves for James and anyone else who annoys him, like me.

Sun nods. "Alika is correct. That line of debate can only run a short distance before it hits a locked gate. Why use a metaphor if you can just say ships?"

"I like facts," says James, "and facts can be awfully difficult to determine one hundred generations after the fact."

"Ooo, good one," I offer sarcastically, but the others ignore my spirited sally.

James is on a roll. "I can't help that poets and philosophers feel obliged to gild the lily with myth-making and fancy metaphors that everyone praises as great intellect. It's unnecessary obfuscation of what is more plausibly explained in concrete terms."

Alika plucks a fresh tune from his ukulele. "‘I could while away the hours, if I only had a mind.’"

"It's not ‘if I only had a mind.’ It's ‘if I only had a brain.’ Respect the ancient classics. Be accurate!" James slaps Alika's leg with his cap, then flaps it in the air so vigorously he almost hits the fourth Companion, the Honorable Hestia Hope.

Hetty, of course, is the one who has been reading aloud to us from the "Reflection" that is this week's philosophy assignment.

"Dear James, I pray you, calm your cap and mind," says Hetty with the quiet dignity and sly pinch of mischief she fully inhabits. Her lips part in an inviting way that draws Sun's gaze for a caught breath, although Hetty never looks at her, not once.

I politely look away from their adorable if perilous little interaction as Alika continues singing of riddles and oceans.

James, Alika, and Hetty have been with Sun for years. She knows their foibles and their strengths. She relies on them absolutely. Which is why all my warning klaxons blare when the princess turns her attention to me, her newest Companion. That diamond-drill mind of hers is always going, which means her Companions need to be on their game all the time. If there is anything I am not, it is on my game all the time.

"Perse, what do you think?"

My suddenly nerveless fingers drop the bun as I blink. "What do I think?"

"Do you think, is the question we are all asking ourselves," remarks James, because he can't help himself.

Never say I can't take the triceratops by the horns in a crisis. I snatch James's cap out of his hand, leap up, and sprint away. James yelps and scrambles after me, but he's not anything as quick as I am and utterly lacks my impressive ability to alter trajectory and dodge.

Alika raises his voice with a new verse. "‘Her head all full of stuffin’…’"

Sun leans back on an elbow, amused by Alika's twanging melody, James's outraged shouts, and my bold bid to avoid the question. But we all know I’ve only put off the inevitable by a few minutes before I have to pay the piper and admit that I did not, in fact, do the reading, whereas James certainly did and is just being contrary.

Shadow and light shift behind the rice-paper screens of the bodyguard's office. It once belonged to Sun's faithful bodyguard and military tutor Octavian. He was murdered in front of our very eyes six weeks ago. Sun burns a stick of incense every day in his honor.

A screen slides aside. Colonel Isis Samtarras emerges, holding an unrolled tablet in her right hand. "Princess, I have last week's training scores."

"Saved by the bell!" With a triumphant grin I toss the cap at James and trot back to the gazebo, not remotely out of breath.

"You might not say so, Honored Persephone, once you see the scores," remarks Isis as she offers the tablet to Sun. Her teacup pteranodon, Wing, perches on her shoulder, watching me as if wondering if I’m small enough to be a snack.

A roll-call assembly request from Sun pings onto our rings, the private network that allows Sun to share shielded communications within her trusted inner circle.


We four Companions are already here, of course.

Wiping damp hands on towels, Candace and Tiana emerge together from the kitchen. The two are a study in contrast. Battle-fan-wielding Candace grew up on military ships as the child of dead soldiers, herself destined to be a soldier. Glamorous, beautiful, accomplished Tiana graduated top of her class from Vogue Academy. Like Isis, they are Companions’-companions, the cee-cees who attend to us Companions as we tend to our Sun.

In an alcove set into the wall beside the courtyard's entry gate stand two of the other three current ring-wearers. Marine Ensign Solomon Iosefa Solomon and Ensign Jade Kim are anomalies, temporary additions to Sun's inner circle even though they are neither Companions nor cee-cees. They’re my fault.

During my tumultuous entry into Sun's orbit, I led the princess and her retinue to the Central Defense Cadet Academy, where I took my training. I drafted my CeDCA classmates into the battle that followed. Having noticed their effectiveness, Sun kept these two instead of releasing them into the fleet with the rest of our graduating cohort. Solomon and Jade move forward with the cautious respect of citizens who aren't sure how much longer they’ll be allowed to remain in the palace.

Sun hands back the tablet. "Isis, you announce the scores."

Isis has the smile of a basilisk eager to turn her victims to stone. "This week, as I’m always fascinated to say, the lowest aggregated score combining physical training, marksmanship, military science, operations and management, philosophy and the arts, fleet history, and field exercises again can be presented to the Honorable James."

He smiles without shame and waves his cap as if he is in the cheer section of a rugby game. "You’re welcome," he calls to me.

From the edge of the gazebo, Solomon snorts derisively.

I shoot him a killing look. "Fuck you, Solomon."

"Weak ass, Perse," Solomon replies with the equanimity of someone who knows he has one of the higher scores.

"The Honorable James has anticipated me," says Isis, referring to James with the familiarity of a legendary relative who has known a young person for the entirety of their short and uninteresting life. "The Honorable Persephone does indeed have the second-lowest aggregated score. James, she edged you out because of her superior physical fitness, which is in the top three. A significant accomplishment that nevertheless does not offset her deficiencies."

Jade Kim opens their mouth to make a cutting remark but when Sun casts a sharp look that way, the ensign closes perfect cherry lips with prim innocence and settles for shading a picturesque sneer in my direction.

Ignoring the byplay, Isis goes on. "Third-lowest this week, I’m surprised to say, is—"

The ringing of the entry-gate bell interrupts her. Its triple chime fades into silence, followed by a five-tone phrase signaling the arrival of the queen-marshal her very own self.

Sun kept a carefully vetted staff to minimize the intrusions of either of her strong-minded parents into what few spaces of her life belonged solely to her. Her high secretary hurried toward the gate, but it opened before Nisaba got there, its lock overridden by the superior authority of the queen-marshal.

Eirene strode in with her usual decisive energy, the proverbial allosaurus in a china shop. She had been off-planet tending to the aftermath of the Molossia battle, leaving Sun as nominal regent. Now she had returned. She came attended by three of her seven Companions, individuals of her age who had supported her climb to power.

Sun was already on her feet with her own Companions. The queen-marshal paused to look them over with the menacing glint of her obsidian eye, the reminder of a battlefield injury from early in her reign.

"Sun! Why do you still only have four Companions? You ought to have seven."

Sun lifted her chin as if to bring the fight back at her opponent. "Colonel Isis is bringing in the Honorable Razin Nazir for an interview tomorrow. She was three years ahead of me at the royal academy."

"I know who she is and where she was. She's Qìngzhī Bō's niece, so it ties him to you. A politically astute choice." The queen-marshal noted Solomon's presence in the manner of an experienced soldier making sure she has identified the presence of every person in a space. Her gaze lingered too long on Ensign Jade Kim before she returned her attention to Sun. "Who are these two, again?"

"Ensigns from CeDCA who performed with distinction in the recent battles."

"I see." Eirene's preferred mode was to intimidate and then attack. "I will speak with you in private. Just the two of us."

She walked away, thus requiring Sun to follow. High Secretary Nisaba settled Eirene's Companions under the gazebo on cushions. Candace and Tiana emerged from the kitchen with platters of food and drink. The polite chatter of Companions young and older faded as Sun passed through her suite's audience hall.

Eirene was waiting for her in the private reception room. She had stationed herself on the balcony that overlooked the palace's Memory Garden of the Celestial Empire. As always she wore an unadorned on-duty uniform. She left the art and display of fashion and its accoutrements to her consorts.

Before her daughter could speak to formally welcome her back to the palace, Eirene raised a hand for silence. Her gaze shifted past Sun, who turned. Tiana appeared in a rustle of glowing silk and graceful manners to set a tray of drinks and tapas on a side table.

"May your constant duties be met with needful refreshment, Your Pacific and Never Indolent Highness." With a respectful but not subservient bow she retreated, leaving the queen-marshal and her heir alone.

"Keep your eye on that one," said Eirene.

"It's contractually illegal for the employer or employer's employer to have sexual contact with a cee-cee."

"That's not what I meant, although I’m fascinated that's the first thing that came to your mind," said Eirene with a laugh that made Sun's cheeks burn. "Your libido has been the subject of much discussion between your father and me."

Sun restrained a scream of frustration by clenching her fingers together. Once again, her mother had unbalanced her and placed herself in the dominant position.

"Yes, Sun, we talk about you, as parents do. But not recently, since he has taken himself into unknown territories with his scientists and Gatoi test subjects. I just learned you arranged a mothballed Titan-class ship for him without consulting me. The Keoe, I’ve come to learn. Next time, consult me first."

"There was a lot going on, such as the battles we were fighting and winning."

"That's no excuse, and you can take that as a warning." Eirene walked over to the side table and ate a deep-fried sesame ball with the savoring consideration of a gourmand. When she finished, she said, "You employ a good cook. Anyway, I’m not here to discuss João's situation."

"All right." Sun pinged a connection via her ring network, opening a one-way voice channel so Hetty would hear everything. Knowing Hetty was listening might help her keep her temper in check, as much as she loathed the monotony of prudence.

"You’ve proven yourself to my satisfaction. In time"—Eirene wagged a finger at Sun, which was as playful as she ever got with her daughter—"and assuming you survive and I meet my end as all must do if they are not one of the Celestial Immortals, you’ll become queen-marshal. To prepare for that day, are you ready to take an official military command in the fleet?"

Of course she was ready! What a question! But Sun kept her voice cool. "Yes."

"That's all you have to say?"

"I’ve proven myself. Is there something more I’m meant to say?"

"Nothing more." Eirene's smile was a knife that would stab you in the gut while she was praising you to your face. Rumor had it that, early in her reign, she’d eliminated three political opponents in exactly that fashion. "Come with me. I have something to show you."

My best friend and I stand side by side with our backs against a wall. The queen-marshal's august Companions mingle with the others beneath the gazebo where we were just discussing the Sayings of the Elder Sages as you do when you come of age in the hothouse of the palace. Which I did not, although I was supposed to.

This failing is why I retreat the instant the queen-marshal's Companions stride into the courtyard: to get out of the line of fire. They’re older and so confident, radiating a war-hardened sheen of success. To James, Alika, Hetty, and the veteran Isis they are familiar figures. Marshal the Honorable Precious Jīn, who spearheaded the Eighth Battle of Kanesh from a shattered cruiser. Marshal the Honorable Nà Bō, who survived a crash landing at the Battle of the Esplanade. Marshal the Honorable Grace Nazir, who never met a Phene soldier he didn't kill. They greet their younger counterparts with the in-jokes and sociable asides of people who have rubbed elbows and shared platters all their lives.

I’m the outsider here, even if I was born into one of the Core Houses just as they all were. Honorables whose purpose is to honor the republic through service.

Solomon, on the other hand, stands with his back to the wall as if he is on sentry duty at the citizen academy where he and I met. His height and bulk reassure me. We’ve patched up our falling-out. Together we’re stronger than ever before, like the song says.

"This is daunting," he remarks in a low voice. The others interact in the way of people who belong to the same club and have never had a moment's doubt about their right to be there. "I never thought I would meet Companions face-to-face."

"Maybe they’ll just talk to the people they already know. I can hope."

"Don't they know you?"

"They knew Perseus, so they know who I am. But they don't know me, do they? Not the real me, only the girl-from-Lee-House me." I cross my arms like barriers that can make me feel less conspicuous. I’m almost sorry I told Tiana to go after Sun with a tea tray.

Meanwhile, Jade Kim is on the move.

Like Solomon, Jade is not an honorable from a Core House. Unlike Solomon, Jade doesn't hang out with their back to the wall unless it's in a dark closet with their latest hot squeeze, not that I would know anything about that. Jade begins circling in like a hungry carnosaur with eyes for the tempting morsels that the rest of us would call connections with the most important people in the republic.

Solomon looks along my line of sight. His body stiffens and his breathing gets sharper. He hates Jade too, just for different reasons. Of course Jade smoothly insinuates themself into the conversation by gliding up alongside Candace as she delivers a tray of fluted glasses filled with sparkling wine. Those kissable lips drop a few words to Isis, who is standing next to Grace Nazir. Who could fail to notice the glossy dynamism of Jade's features? The muscled shoulders and supple hands? The half-tilted smile and the lying warmth of those drowsy brown eyes?

Solomon nudges me. "Holy hells, stop staring. I thought you were over Jade."

"Someone should kill that social-climbing parasite. Would you look at that?"

Water flows downhill along the path of least resistance. Jade Kim flows toward those most vulnerable to a slick combination of beauty and brilliance. Beneath the gazebo where we were so recently discussing fate and destiny, Jade pivots to chatting up the older Companions with the serious suck-up look that fooled our teachers at the academy. Sure, the teachers admired Jade's top scores, but it was the performative humility that snagged them.

Sun's Companions are harder marks than CeDCA's teachers or Eirene's bosom buddies. James ignores Jade while Alika smolders with indignation at the intrusion. Hetty glances around the courtyard until she spots me and Solomon up against the wall. Her mouth twists with amusement and a wink of sympathy. She tilts her head to invite me over, but I gesture a no. No fucking way am I wading into that poison swamp where Jade Kim will, I guarantee, find a way to put me down in front of Eirene's closest friends.

"Give it up," says Solomon.

"You give it up. You hate Jade too."

"Yeah, but that's because Jade insulted my family. I’m not the one who—"

"Shut up! It was my first year."

"And your second year, and your fourth year."

I’d blush but I’m long beyond blushing. "I didn't think you knew about those other times. It was a momentary weakness."

"You are just one momentary weakness after the next."

I would frown threateningly at him and even kick his boot but my thoughts drift to my last kiss.

Memory is a nag. I close my eyes as if that will block out the image of Zizou's blindfolded face. How arousing is it that we couldn't touch unless he was blindfolded? My fingers twitch as I think of how my arms embraced him; the texture of his hair on my skin; the solid line of his jaw; the touch of his lips to mine, hesitant at first as he too is astonished by the intensity of this mutual feeling, and then…

The scent of sandalwood makes my nose itch. Zizou did not wear perfume. I rub my nose with the back of a hand and open my eyes to see my cee-cee walking up to us holding a tray of warm egg tarts.

Ti offers a tart to Solomon as she flicks her gaze sideways in a message to me.

"Did you hear anything?" I whisper.

"No. The queen-marshal saw me coming before I got close enough to overhear. I couldn't think of a way to loiter without being obvious."

"So we don't know why she called Sun away."

"She is her mother." I shudder.

"Not all mothers are like yours." She glances toward the lively gathering under the gazebo and back to me. "Walk over with me."

"No way."

Solomon says to Ti, "Are you going to try to convince her to go?"

"Not worth the effort." Ti shrugs eloquently.

He chuckles. "You’ve got her number, that's for sure."

Ti sighs, hands me the tray as if I’m the cee-cee and not her, and taps Solomon on his beefy forearm. "Solomon, it's important you not act like part of the furniture."

"Why is it important? I’m very comfortable here by the wall."

"Because you represent provisional citizens. You stand in for their importance to the republic. For their competence to serve and their worthiness to be given full rights and privileges. You need to act as if you are a full citizen with all that implies. Which means you can be introduced to the queen-marshal's Companions. You can speak to them with dignity and honor. If not for yourself, then do it for your family and all the other families and clans who live in the twilight legal limbo that is provisional citizenship—"

"All right, all right." He nudges me with an elbow. "Is she always like this?"

"Yes," I say, even though I’ve only known Ti for six weeks. "And no, I’m staying here with my wall. I love my wall. Let them come to my wall if they’re so eager to make my acquaintance. If I go over there they’ll murmur pointless regrets about poor dead Percy and afterward praise the eight-times-worthy war hero Resh and tell me how much I look like her and I can't take it. I just can't."

Ti takes the tray from my hands with the smile of a benevolently patient ancestor. "Come with me, Solomon."

Who wouldn't go with the most glamorous person in the room? Me, that's who. My wall keeps me in the shadow, cool and safe. With arms folded I watch Ti sail in like a festival barge adorned in miraculous lights, not that she's wearing lights. Jade has the looks and the arrogance. The Handsome Alika, past winner of Idol Faire, has the looks and the stage presence. But Tiana graduated top of her class at Vogue Academy. She knows how to command attention without seeming to. Heads turn her way. Suddenly everyone wants an egg tart in order to bask in her smile.

Solomon lumbers behind with the shyness that occasionally cracks his veneer of solidity. Isis immediately brings him to the attention of the older Companions. Colonel Isis Samtarras is a veteran of Eirene's campaigns too, even though she now works as James's cee-cee. She's commanded marines all her life, and she can spot the worth of a big, strong, fast, smart, hardworking, and dedicated young man from hardscrabble circumstances who at the academy kept his head down, worked hard, and scored high without ever once boasting about it.

My shoulders start to relax. Maybe I’ll get through this unscathed after all. What could Sun and her mother have to talk about that they haven't already talked about before? How long could it possibly take?

To reach Fleet Strategic Command a person had to have the highest level of military clearance. With that clearance, an individual could descend via one of five security elevators or enter by a reinforced tunnel that linked FSC to Battle Reserve Command buried deep in the western mountains one hundred klicks away. The queen-marshal had direct access via stairs that connected the war room in her private quarters in the aboveground part of the palace to the underground nerve center of Chaonia's military.

Eirene's retinal scan and blood trace unlocked an airlock that let onto the stairs. Two spatharioi snapped to attention as the queen-marshal entered and gave them a curt nod. Sun admired the patience of palace guards, the whole of their duty to stand at the top of an enclosed stairwell that might be used once or twice a day at most, or not at all for weeks on end when Eirene was out on campaign.

She virtually clipped their ID bars into her network to find their names. "Sergeant Saif Yíng Alargos. Lance Corporal Sukja Rèn Alcotai."

Their faces brightened. "Your Highness."

Eirene had charged on without waiting. Sun scrambled to catch up. They descended three long flights to a second airlock guarded by a second pair of spatharioi, both corporals whom Sun also greeted by name.

The airlock opened onto an underground foyer. Anyone entering via stairs, elevators, or tunnel had to cross the foyer as through a shooting gallery to the entry barrier. This metal-and-ceramic gate was decorated with an image of the five-headed scylla native to Chaonia Prime's oceans. Instead of waiting to be admitted by the security stationed on the other side of the gate, Eirene placed a hand on the barrier.

"Eirene Shān, queen-marshal of the Republic of Chaonia."

The gate opened to her touch, she alone of all Chaonia able to open any door, any airlock, any shield. Sun followed her through a secure set of airlocks and into a cavernous chamber. Since Chaonia was on a wartime footing, soldiers stationed at consoles did not rise as Eirene entered.

Machines hummed. The light of screens painted a glow on faces intent on their tasks. The night watch was a quiet time if there were no immediate crises. In the aftermath of the battles at Molossia and Troia, both the republic and the empire had defaulted to "retrench and wait" mode, but of course Chaonia had limited knowledge of what was really going on in the Phene Empire and it would take weeks for news to trickle out.

At the center of the cavern a transparent dome sealed in a large strategos table. Here the location of every asset in the republic was marked, tracked, approved, and deployed. A colonel and a chief attended the table at all times. They stepped away to leave the queen-marshal and her heir alone beneath the dome. Eirene tuned the dome to become opaque.

A three-dimensional virtual map appeared above. It displayed the local belt of stars through which humanity had spread after the ancient Argosy fleets discovered Landfall, a system with an inhabitable planet. Each star system was marked with the symbol of the confederation to which it was politically aligned: a sunburst for the Republic of Chaonia, a double helix for the Phene Empire, a lotus for the systems collectively associated as the Yele League. There were other designations for other coalitions, as well as for the modern Argosy fleets and the nomadic banner fleets known as Gatoi, but at the moment these weren't the focus of military operations.

For six generations Chaonia had been beleaguered by the Yele League or subject to the Phene Empire. Eirene had changed all that. Now the Yele were yoked by a treaty, leaving Chaonian fleets free to fight the empire.

The queen-marshal removed a disk from a pocket tucked into the sleeve of her uniform. Setting it onto the table she turned the red glimmer of her obsidian eye upon it and, with a hidden code, opened its secrets. Lights sparked to indicate the three founding systems of the republic: Chaonia, Molossia, and Thesprotis.

Eirene expanded the view of Molossia System, scene of the recent monumental battle. "The damage the Phene inflicted sets back our fleet readiness by years."

"If I were the Phene, I’d make my move now while we’re most vulnerable."

"That's the thinking of certain of my marshals. Qìngzhī recommends retreat from our forward footholds in the Hatti territories. He argues we should consolidate our gains by establishing a static and permanent frontier at Troia System."

"Marshal Qìngzhī wants us to abandon Aspera, Maras Shantiya, Hatti, Tarsa, Kaska, Na Iri, and Kanesh too?" Each star system sparked with a brighter light as Sun spoke their names. "After all the people who died to liberate them from the Phene? All the resources we expended in order to get control of beacons surrounding Karnos? Are you considering it?"

"Of course I’m not considering it. I’m going to stay on the schedule I set in motion years ago. And do you know why?"

Eirene's love of lecturing included treating her daughter as if she were the queen-marshal's student, and of course in most political and philosophical ways Sun was. Sun had learned never to interrupt. Half of successful tactics was knowing not to expend your effort to no benefit. Eirene zoomed the map to enlarge and focus the current-to-the-day configuration of the biggest prize of all: Karnos System and its eleven planets. Seven of these planets had beacons anchored to them like moons.

"Because Karnos used to be an independent territory with its own dynastic lineage, it still functions as a buffering frontier between us and the central imperial systems of the Phene. You may find my pedagogy annoying," she added with a quirk of one eyebrow as she studied her daughter's expression, "but drill is the heart of discipline. Why is Karnos such an effective buffer, given that it has seven beacons? The presence of six functional beacons out of those seven ought to make it a porous and difficult-to-defend system."

"Because only two of the beacons lead directly from Karnos into the heart of imperial space. That makes it a bottleneck."

The planets spun through the next year of their orbits around the Karnos star until Eirene paused them. "Twenty years ago I identified a local-to-Karnos window when the configuration of the planets and their beacons in Karnos System would favor an attack into Karnos through the Na Iri and Tarsa beacons. Why is that?"

Sun used a laser stylus to indicate the different beacons. "At this time and in this alignment the two beacons that link directly into imperial space—Sleepless and Windworn—will be disadvantageously positioned. If we attack into Karnos System via the Tarsa and Na Iri Beacons, then any reinforcement forces the Phene send into Karnos via Sleepless and Windworn will be separated by greater distances from each other than our fleets will be from each other. So our forces can coordinate more rapidly than theirs can."

"Very good."

"That's all very well, but nothing we can do will counter the communications advantage the Phene have."

"It's true. But physical distances remain the same for their ships as for ours. Once we are all in the same system, their Riders give them a much less disproportionate comms advantage. And it burdens them with the need to get the Riders out of harm's way." She indicated each beacon in Karnos System, named according to the system it linked to: Tarsa, Na Iri, Windworn, Sleepless, Aspera, Hellion Terminus, and the seventh, the dead one, whose paired system no one knew. "That's why this configuration is a rare chance I intend to take advantage of forty-two republic weeks from now. Some have argued it's too big a risk because it's too short a time frame for such a massive undertaking considering the losses we took. But I say it remains our best opportunity to take Karnos."

"Isn't the bigger risk that the Phene attack us sooner than we can attack them?"

"Maybe. But a good marshal knows when to sit tight. The Phene have so many more resources and population than we do that they’ll think we can't bounce back after the damage we suffered. We were hit hard, it's true. But our shipyards, industrial parks, and training camps are working longer hours, more efficiently than ever. Combined with our better training and stronger unit cohesion, we have reserves of toughness the Phene lack. Chaonians don't dither. And despite Baron Voy's cowardly flight, and perhaps partly because of it, we maintain a substantial contingent of allied Yele League ships. Like the Larissan Centaur Division and the heavy frigate division. Neither of which were damaged in the battle."

Although lacking an obsidian eye, Sun did possess a laser stylus embedded in her ring, which she used to indicate Karnos Prime. One of three rocky planets in the goldilocks zone, it was the main center of the system's population.

"How do you mean to deal with the planet defense system and ground installations on Karnos Prime? The Phene could keep our forces stuck for years fighting over each patch of dirt."

Her mother had a smug smile that she only trotted out in private. It wasn't that Eirene was a modest or humble person; she was perfectly happy to rub her victories into the faces of her enemies. But she knew better than to tip her hand in front of people who might use foreknowledge against her.

"That's what clandestine operations and secret allies are for." She popped the disk out of the table and handed it to Sun. "Memorize everything on this. It opens to your retinal scan and voice only. It will erase itself if anyone else tries to access it. Do you have any questions?"

Sun bit back irritation at it having taken so long for her mother to trust her with the full military intelligence an heir ought to have. Octavian had trained her in a hard school. Don't let your temper control you. She had her mother's trust now. Start as you mean to go on.

"What happened to the Rider I captured on Tjeker? I’ve asked, but no one seems to know."

"Ah." Eirene's gaze lit up, as if she had forgotten her daughter had personally captured one of the Phene ruling class, the first Chaonian ever to do so. Perhaps she had. It would be exactly like her. "A good question. Let's go see."

Voices speak at the entry gate to the heir's courtyard, more arrivals. A premonition of disaster whirls through my mind. I push away from the wall with a glance toward the kitchen door, wondering if I can make an excuse to go there. A toilet break! We all need those!

My first step in that direction comes too late.

Everyone turns toward the gate as another of Eirene's Companions walks in, my distant cousin the Honorable Marduk Lee. That's not so bad until I notice he is not alone. A pregnant pause settles upon the gathering as the pregnant consort of Queen-Marshal Eirene makes a stately entrance, solicitously escorted by Marduk. Consort the Honorable Manea Lee is halfway through her pregnancy. She's not waddling yet, but the gown she wears is cut to emphasize the curve of her growing belly.

There's an entire layer of politics involved in her marriage to and pregnancy by Eirene. For one thing, it reminds everyone at court and all citizens of the republic that Princess Sun's father is an untrustworthy foreigner while Manea is a good Chaonian girl who will give birth to a wholly Chaonian child. What else Manea is has been kept a secret, maybe even from her.

The Companions greet her kindly but with the patronizing smiles of hard-assed people who find her youth and gentle bearing to be not quite worthy of their full respect. I can't blame them. I grew up with Manea in Lee House: her and me and Percy and Resh the four acknowledged children of the three sisters in the governing line. Manea was the compliant one, blandly sweet. What she thought of me I never knew because she never let on and we were never close.

So I’m taken by surprise when she moves deftly through the greetings and cuts across the courtyard to my wall. Her long hair is dyed a pale pinkish white. She's taller than I am. People might not notice how much we look alike because of her plumper cheeks and curvier build, and because she sports the current fashion among those who follow Vogue trends of painting one side of her face. Today a curling explosion of waves of golden joy gives visual expression to her pleasure at having her beloved return to her side.

"Persephone," she says with an inviting smile, as if we are old friends. She squeezes my hands with more strength than I expect from uncalloused fingers. Her soft eyes melt winningly as she addresses me. "We’ve not had a chance to spend any time together since you were brought into Sun's household. Perseus's death was a shock. He was always very kind to me, you know."

"Percy was always kind." I don't add: kinder than I’ve ever been.

She smiles graciously. "I miss him. Now you’re here in the palace, I’m hoping we can spend more time together. You’ll be busy, of course. Sun's Companions must have a beast of a schedule. I can guess how it is for you, and I sympathize."

I blink, too puzzled by this assault to know how to act. "How what is for me?"

She lowers her voice. Everyone is looking our way, waiting for drama to drop. "It's got to be difficult to return to court after you ran away. I know my mother and your mother pretend otherwise, give out another story. I also know how hard Resh's death hit you. Maybe even why you felt you had to hide at the citizens’ academy. We weren't close as children, but maybe we can be cousins now? You’re all the close kin I have left besides my mother and Uncle Marduk. And your mother, of course, but Aunt Aisa is not an individual one can confide in."

"Or trust," I mutter.

She squeezes my hand. "You’ve had the worst of that."

So prudently spoken. So genuine. So sweet.

"Also…" She leans closer, looking at me through half-lowered eyelids like a helpless hatchling. "Where's Eirene? I don't want to ask the others because then they’ll know she didn't tell me where she was going. They’re kind of jerks about how well they know her and what they’ve all accomplished together and how I’m just the budding flower that's taken her current fancy."

Even I am not immune to people asking for help so flagrantly, with a shimmer of unshed tears in their eyes. "She and Sun went off for a private meeting."

"Ah. Well then." She releases one of my hands but not the other. "Please come keep me company. They’re condescending to me, to be honest. I was hoping you’d stand beside me."

I believe her, which is possibly the worst part.

"All right."

We walk over together. Solomon looks honestly confounded.

Ti glides up and says, "Honorable Manea, may I be first to congratulate you on this winning ensemble. I’m impressed by its layers of meaning, and how well the colors work together."

Manea presses a hand to her chest with a smile made piquant by a delicate blush. "My thanks. I followed you in the final examination competition at Vogue Academy. I’m honored by such complimentary words from an adept of your accomplishments."

"My praise is honestly meant. Is there anything you need? Drink? Food?"

"I’ve been drinking goji juice."

"I’ll get you some right away, Honored Consort." She heads for the kitchen, leaving me to face the onslaught alone.

"Perseus's death was so sudden," says Marduk Lee by way of greeting. "And his cee-cee, too. Shocking business."

After everyone has said their piece about my twin's unfortunate demise, Precious Jīn says, as if on cue, "You look so much like your eight-times-worthy sister."

"May I live up to her stellar example," I reply with creditable calm.

Before the reminiscences can start about Ereshkigal's sacrifice with all its gory details, Manea indicates the tablet unrolled on the table.

"Goodness, did we interrupt you while you were studying the ancient classics? Isn't this the ‘Reflections on the Decree of Destiny’? ‘We are the spears cast at the furious heaven.’ So many discussions Persephone and I had with our tutor Kadmos. He made us memorize the whole thing. ‘Do humans live in harmony with fate? Or do they suffer powerless in life as fate's demands adhere to a set pattern?’ Are we bound to the trajectories of those who set us in motion? Are the spears merely a reference to the physical ships of the Argosy fleets on which we escaped the broken land? Those are in the first half. What else?"

She pauses to leave me an opening.

Jade Kim has never been shy about grabbing the spotlight when they believe it will benefit their status, and they aren't shy now as they grab my line. "In the next part of the ‘Reflections,’ it is said the spears represent anger. The loyal citizens and subjects had lived faithfully and obediently for their part. Yet they had been punished alongside the leaders, when it was the leaders who allowed the imperial gardens to wither. The leaders who did nothing as the blood of innocent and dutiful alike became corrupted because they thought the plague would not touch them. Thus, according to the sages, the spears can be interpreted as the anger of a population betrayed by both rulers and gods."

"Thanks for the timely lecture, Ensign." I use Jade's rank to remind everyone that I’m an Ensign the Honorable as well as a Companion, not a mere citizen ensign.

My pettiness does not intimidate Jade. "As if you had any idea, since I remember the scores you got in philosophy class." The murmur is a shot across the bow, accompanied by the tremor of a sneer.

"That was the other philosophy class," I reply. "I’m surprised you forgot how I aced the one on the Sayings of the Elder Sages. As Consort the Honorable Manea reminds me, I can still recite the entire scroll by heart. Anyone game to hear it? It only takes two hours."

Jade flushes with anger. My heart swells to ten times its previous size with smackdown satisfaction. Alika's mouth curls into a smirk, and Hetty hides a smile behind a hand. James gives a sideways tug to his cap as a salute to my wicked counterpunch. Solomon sighs because he's already figured out Eirene's Companions aren't impressed by my trivial point scoring.

Marduk Lee has the instincts of a typical Lee House scion, every one of whom fights dirty. He settles onto a divan and by doing so invites all to sit. All except me. "Eirene might be some time. I think it's a wonderful idea for you young people to focus on your elders while we wait. Go ahead, Persephone. We’re all listening."

My mind goes blank and my skin goes cold. Where in the hells is Sun, and how soon is she going to get back here?

The queen-marshal and her heir made their way past banks of consoles to a back wall. They took an elevator deeper into the bedrock. The lift opened onto an underground level known in whispers as "the Nineteenth Hell."

Airlocks and a gate sealed off a klick-long corridor. High-security rooms held military prisoners, although officially no one in here existed. There were three conventions of war. The third was that enemy soldiers and spacers taken prisoner could not be tortured or killed in custody. Since this level was not part of the Ministry of War, prisoners held in its cells were not formally in custody. Even so, Eirene rarely allowed military prisoners to be imprisoned here. As she often said, a strong military can hold to civilized conventions because it doesn't need savagery to succeed; it needs discipline and training.

Because the level was not a military installation, no one in the Guard or the Fleet worked down here, only civilians wearing white coats. The individual in charge was one of Eirene's Companions, the Honorable Norioghene Hope. She was tall for a Chaonian, wearing a white lab coat and blue gloves. She greeted the queen-marshal with a tap of forearms.

"Here you are, Eirene. When I heard you were back I was expecting you to come by sooner. I suppose you had to entertain the lovely Manea first."

"Needs must," said Eirene with the softening that gentled her usually belligerent expression when the subject of her young consort arose.

Norioghene wasn't one to make a lewd joke. She politely turned to Sun. "Princess Sun, peace be upon you."

"And upon you peace, Honored Norioghene."

"Where is the Rider?" Eirene said.

"This way." Norioghene led them along the passage. As they walked she glanced at Sun. "All the scans we’ve been doing remind me of the time I did a complete scan of your neural system to see if there was any inherited network from your father's side. You have some vestigial structures but you are not neurologically enhanced like other Gatoi. You won't remember. You were only three."

"I’ve seen the scans," said Sun. "Only children born on the wheel-ships develop the full neural network."

"I’d love a chance to study the wheelships and figure how and why that neural system develops in Gatoi soldiers."

Sun glanced at her mother, unsure of how much the Honorable Norioghene knew about Prince João's work with banner soldiers.

Eirene ignored the comment. "What can you tell me about the Rider?"

Norioghene's grin sparked with ghoulish excitement. "Remarkable and mysterious. In here."

An unmarked door opened into a chamber with guards, and thence through an airlock into a laboratory and surgical suite populated by monitors, worktables, and on-duty white coats. The coats came forward to be introduced to the queen-marshal and her heir. Anyone working down here had the highest security clearance. All were honorables from the various Core Houses.

After greeting them, Sun walked to a clear wall. Red lights flashed above an airlock entryway. Inside the chamber two individuals in vac suits were taking notes on either side of a transparent stasis pod. Eirene and Norioghene came up beside Sun.

"It's a vacuum chamber," said Norioghene. "The presence of a vacuum tells the stasis pod to stay in stasis rather than to open, because it thinks it's in space. We don't know how much awareness a Rider has if their physical body is unconscious or in stasis. We follow strict protocols to avoid a Rider spying on us or even hearing our voices or seeing our faces."

The figure inside the pod was a human of forty or fifty years of age. She had four arms on a somewhat elongated torso and a second face on the back of her head. The eyes and mouth and nostrils of the riding face were more like slits, as if someone had sketched a face on skin stretched over the back of a skull.

Norioghene was gushing enthusiastically to Eirene. "We’ve done multiple scans at different times of the day. The brain has subtle but anomalous structures when compared to normal brains, and even compared to the brains of imperial Phene with their larger cerebellum. However there's nothing we can pinpoint as the source of their ability to communicate with other Riders. We suspect the differences embedded in a Rider brain don't become fully apparent unless the brain is actively riding. We’d expect to see different regions light up. With the body in stasis it's impossible to get an accurate look at what is going on when a Rider is in active communication with other Riders."

"Have you woken the subject?" Eirene asked.

"Not yet. I advise against it because of the risk of suicide. That's not a chance we should be willing to take."

"Have you opened up her skull yet?" Eirene asked.

"You do realize that cutting into the skull of a prisoner if there's no medical indication would constitute torture," said Sun.

"I do realize," said Eirene so dryly that Sun felt her ears wither with the rebuke.

Norioghene said, "We can't open her skull without taking her out of the stasis pod. Once she's out of stasis, even if under sedation or unconscious, we don't know what level of communication she can manage without us knowing it's happening. She might be able to overhear everything we’re saying and doing. If so, then every Rider would know. The Rider Council would have proof of torture. You see all the complications that would ensue."

"We’re already at war with them," said Eirene. "But I take your point. It could create complications with our allies."

"What about trying to talk to the Rider Council through her?" Sun asked.

Eirene gave a caustic laugh, not quite mockery and not quite disdain, but close enough that Sun's cheeks heated with annoyance. "The Rider Council will have nothing to say to us. To them we are upstarts pawing through the rubbish like junkyard hatchlings."

A mirror placed on the wall reflected an image of the woman's ordinary face, relaxed in slumber. A janus face, peering in both directions.

"Think of what it would mean to have Riders of our own," said Sun. "We could coordinate an attack into the heart of the empire."

"We need not break ourselves against that behemoth," Eirene scoffed. "Their Council and syndicates may be reactionary, fractious, and hidebound, but they’re still a hundred times more populous and a thousand times wealthier. Once we take Karnos we’ll control a significant percentage of trade between the empire and the Yele League. That puts us in a powerful position no one expected us to be in twenty-five years ago. Not even me."

"We did it," said Norioghene, who had been with Eirene from the beginning.

"Don't say so before the outcome rests in our hands," Eirene snapped.

Norioghene gestured with a sign against ill fortune. "I didn't mean Karnos. I meant stabilizing Chaonia at our moment of greatest vulnerability, when we were falling apart after your brother's death. I mean gaining enough leverage and strength to force the Yele League into a treaty on our terms. I mean pushing the Phene and the Hesjan cartels out of Kanesh to give us access to Karnos and the Hatti regions. Your accomplishments are one of a kind. They’ll never be outdone by any marshal or any ruler. Not now. Not ever."

"That's probably correct." Eirene contemplated the slack body and its seemingly unconscious faces. Her expression of heady triumph took on a calculating eye. "Sun's right, though. What if we had Riders of our own? It would make administering our new domains a cursed sight more efficient."

Norioghene shot her a look. "You’ve got some terrible thought percolating in your devious mind." The words were said with admiration, not as criticism.

"Maybe I do," said Eirene. "I need to think on it some more. For now, continue your passive scans and analyses. Do you have any theories on how riding works?"

The queen-marshal and her Companion walked away to a table. Sun remained at the wall.

Not now. Not ever.

Eirene had accomplished what everyone said was impossible, but that didn't mean what Norioghene thought it did. It only meant the impossible was achievable for the person who refused to set limits for themselves.

The Phene had built an empire with their Riders. A commander could do a lot with such an advantage. If she had Riders under her control, she would know instantly no matter how far apart they were what was happening where other Riders were. With a properly placed spy, for example, she could know what was going on right now in the heart of the enemy.

Excerpted from Furious Heaven, copyright © 2023 by Kate Elliott.

Furious Heaven