Chapter 12

 

When she woke up that morning, the first thing she did was check the date.

December 23, 1793—and though she was only now beginning her day, the Americans were ending theirs.  They would be ending their year soon, too.  Fitting, Ila thought, considering she was about to end her time at the Regal Academy of Felicity and begin the next phase of her mission.

With only days before graduation, Ila and the rest of the academy’s student body had sat through a lineup of lectures.  Each presentation was intended to give the budding politicians a closer, more enticing look at the various routes they could take after leaving the academy.

The first lineup had consisted of an introduction to the agricultural and general sustenance departments of the Coalition government, as well as an in-depth look at the union’s health regulations and initiatives.  After that, a number of lecturers presented on the construction and maintenance of various infrastructures, from underground transportation to FTL travel.  Another presentation elaborated on the Coalition prison system, how it interacted with the local correctional facilities of outer worlds, and the great need for shrewd participants in the discussion of the ethical treatment of inmates.

One major concern that seemed to draw all these disparate topics together was the political and social state of the outer planets, as well as translating policies and programs which worked on the Coalition’s core planets to underdeveloped worlds.  This seemed to be the primary concern of many of the students, the trending angle in which to take any political career.

Toward the end of the lecture series, the military began a line of its own presentations.  Some of the lecturers spoke on the need to maintain a defined hierarchy to connect the Coalition military with the local militaries of outer planets, in order to avoid disarray of any kind.  Others discussed the fair compensation of military personnel and their families, and how to balance such interests with the need to finance the advancement of military hardware and interests.

A number of topics, many of which seemed more or less mundane to Ila and her classmates, were presented.  However, one presenter from the military managed to capture her attention.

A short, older woman, the commander of one of the fleet’s largest battle groups, was the presenter.  She discussed the latest conventions and summits on the treatment of combatants and noncombatants in times of war.  The growing concern was that what defined a person as an enemy combatant had changed in recent history.  Since the Totalization, when all known human populations—save the primitive people of Earth only—had been gathered into the singular Coalition, the days of one nation going to war against another had ended.  However, this did not mean the end of violence, or even war.  Asymmetrical warfare had become the norm, and battles that were once held between essentially equally matched nations had morphed into guerilla warfare and terrorism.

After the female commander’s presentation, one student opted to participate in the question and answer session.  The student, a young man who would be graduating with Ila, asked how the Coalition military and legislature, as well as the prime family, addressed this change.  Describing the shift as if he was quoting verbatim from the required reading, the student mentioned that the principles for defining and treating combatants and noncombatants had changed with this tide.

“How has the Coalition adapted with this?”

The female commander, feeling comfortable enough to represent the rest of the military with her answer, first described how they had changed the use of fleet ships.  While initially the fleet had been used in almost all offensive missions, now their vessels had been utilized to assist in the secure transport of trade goods, as well as the patrolling of vulnerable territories of the Coalition.

“The Rededication program has also been forced to adapt,” the commander went on in a raspy voice, worn from years of good use.  “But I’ll let your next guest speaker give you the details.  Young man, please be sure to raise your question again when the time comes.”

The commander’s answer was greeted with the satisfied applause of the students in the auditorium.  While Ila politely clapped along with her classmates, she found the answer they had received to be more tantalizing than fulfilling, almost empty.  She was not so much interested in the use of the fleet, but in what the commander had left out—that to which she had only pointed.

That question would be answered today.  Today Ila would sit in on the presentation that had been on her mind since she had entered the academy.  From the beginning, she knew this array of various options for her classmates would conclude with a detailed presentation on the Rededication program—the very reason she was here, and the very reason her family was not.

Of even more interest, especially to those who did not care about the Rededication program, it was tradition for one member of the prime family to attend this presentation every term the academy hosted such an event.  Ila knew this as she entered the auditorium, taking a look up at the upper mezzanine, which seated all high profile guests of the academy.  There was no way the Superior General, the prime family’s head, would be at such a trivial event; however, a member of the first sphere, his immediate subordinates, would surely be in attendance.  Ila was surprised to see a face she did not readily recognize, looking down on the congealing audience below.  Obviously the person above—a young woman—was a member of the prime family, but she must have been among the younger children of the family’s second sphere.  Ila didn’t pay it much thought, however.  She could hardly see the girl in the mezzanine anyway.

Soon after she took her seat, the presentation began.

The lecturer this time around was a burly man with well-kempt facial hair, which fell from his cheeks and jaw in dense waves.  A formerly retired war hero, he had served as the commander of a vessel that had apparently saved one of the Coalition’s core planets years ago from a massive orbital assault during the last years before the Totalization.  It was an attack that almost merited the use of Rededication, but the beast was never loosed, all thanks to the efforts of this man, Commander Ankaris.

Ankaris retired shortly after that engagement, but was soon called back into active service when he was invited into the Rededication program, initially as a consultant in one of the bureaus of observation and assessment.  However, in a short span of time, Ankaris had climbed his way into the head committee, whose role it was to review all relevant data from the bureaus below and to render a decision as to whether or not Rededication should be activated—a decision which was then passed on to the Superior General.

“To this day, I serve as a proxy on the committee,” Ankaris said, concluding his biographical information.  “I have served since even before the deaths of the remaining members of the first sphere, before only the Superior General remained, and I hope to serve a great deal longer under the auspices of the Coalition, its family, and its citizens.”

This was exactly what Ila had been waiting for.  Ankaris was to present specifically on the role of the head committee in the program’s decision-making process.  Butterflies had already filled her belly even before he began, and it seemed as if it was harder to breathe as he went on.

By the end of the presentation, her heart was pounding.

With a grateful gesture, Ankaris thanked the young politicians for their attentiveness and hospitality, bowing graciously under the flood of applause that followed.  The question and answer portion of his lecture began immediately after the applause died down.

On the armrest of each chair in the auditorium was a single button; when the person pressed their chair’s button, they declared their desire to ask a question.  A notification was sent to the nano-net of the presenter, and they would select a few students from among the many requests.  Despite the content of his presentation and the student body’s interest, there were surprisingly few students who wished to ask a question.

The first three students to stand put forward mostly inconsequential questions about Ankaris’ experience as a commander.  Still others requested historical information concerning Rededication’s use during the old planetary wars, before the Totalization and the completion of the Coalition.

The last student, however, was the same person of interest from only days before who had asked about the changing nature of warfare.  He stood confidently, addressing the master proxy as he had addressed the commander before, contextualizing his question with the same textbook preface.  As he spoke, he looked at Ankaris the way a child might look up to their infallible parent.

“Master Proxy Ankaris,” the boy finally said, “how would you say the Rededication program has adapted since the Totalization?”

Though she was reserved, Ila had always strived to be civil—at times too civil, according to her father—but she could not help but question this young man’s confidence.  It had been no secret that since he had been invited to bring his question to this presentation, various professors of the academy had taken the boy under their wing, aiding him in refining his query.  Even with only surface details, Ila could not help but wonder about this.  The academy had ensured this child, who had managed to attract a good deal of attention, asked the right question—but who defined what the right question was?

With delight, as well as the kind of respect with which he would address an equal, Ankaris answered the young man’s question.  He began by returning to the head committee’s role.

“The head committee is a close group of proxies who take their duty very seriously.  We make it our top priority to ensure that any potential threat to the welfare of the Coalition as a whole, including its citizens, individually and collectively, is met with the deepest reverence and consideration.”

Growing even more enamored as he spoke, bringing all but Ila with him, Ankaris continued his likely rehearsed response.

“Each case is reviewed along with the data provided by all involved bureaus of observation and assessment, then we discuss the matter until we reach a unanimous decision.  Our decision is then passed on to His Grace, the Superior General.”

Listening closely, Ila could already hear Ankaris saying too much, at least as far as she was concerned.  However, the retired commander seemed all too eager and perfectly at ease.

“The Superior General has the authority to accept or veto the committee’s decision.  But His Grace is not simply a passive observer, acting only when provoked.  There are occasions when His Grace may veto our decision to not activate the Rededication initiative, and there are even times when the Superior General may request the bureaus to investigate what he may consider a possible threat.  The Superior General is intimately invested in the well-being and fair treatment of the people!”

A thunderous applause followed, one which could have drowned out even the praise which Ankaris received at the end of his presentation.  However, while still clapping lightly along with the rest of her classmates, Ila could feel her stomach fluttering, as if she had been launched out an airlock.

Trying to bring herself under control, she didn’t realize the young woman in the mezzanine had been watching her this whole time.

Ankaris prepared to close the meeting.  Only by chance did he notice there was one more student who had requested to ask a question.

“Surely we have time for one more question,” Ankaris concluded in a booming voice.  “Let’s see.”

The light on Ila’s chair flared blue, indicating that she had been cleared to speak.  Standing up, her nano-net automatically interfaced with the auditorium’s speaker system, and the nanites near her throat converged to relay her words.

“Master Proxy, if I may, I would like to expand upon the question just asked,” Ila began, speaking as clearly and politely as she could.

“I would be delighted to oblige,” Ankaris answered.

“I thank you for your clarification of the Rededication program’s decision-making process,” she continued.  “However, I have a concern I wish to raise.”

That word—“concern”—caught not only the students, but Ankaris himself somewhat off guard.  The young woman in the mezzanine above, however, leaned in closer, listening intently.

“Concern?” Ankaris replied, as if he had misheard her.

“Yes, Master Proxy, a concern.  If I may.”

Ankaris cleared his throat, a fist to his lips, then said, “Please, proceed.”

“You described the head committee as the climax of the reviewing process, the final party to review all intelligence passed on from the bureaus.”

“Correct.”

“However, is this process not somehow interrupted by the Superior General’s absolute ability to either accept or deny the committee’s final decision?”

A dead silence followed, a hollow response which made Ila resist the need to tremble.  Thinking of the fire with which her father would speak, his own confidence, as well as her mother’s interminable composure—she attempted to channel them both as she awaited her answer.

After a lengthy pause, Ankaris finally opened his mouth.

“You’re very thoughtful to raise such a question,” he began, speaking pleasantly as he eyed Ila in the distant crowd.  “But I assure you, the involvement of His Grace is not an interruption.  Rather, you might think of his participation as the capstone of the committee’s work.  The head committee gathers their data, and His Grace functions as an additional approval process, all in order to ensure the just treatment of the people under investigation.”  Spreading his hands to the rest of his audience, Ankaris looked almost as if he was asking for backup.  “After all, we are dealing with the lives of other human beings, and we would never want to enact the Rededication initiative when there might be some other means of achieving peace.”

“But, Master Proxy,” Ila replied without a second’s hesitation, “does the committee’s decision not make the Superior General’s role redundant?  If the head committee can reach a decision on its own, why must His Grace intervene?”

The discomfort in the auditorium was palpable, like dust in the wind.  The students sitting next to Ila seemed nervous enough to pull her back down to her seat.  But Ankaris surprised the tense crowd with a boisterous laugh, as if he was applauding the tenacity of youth itself.

“Dear lady,” Ankaris answered, more amused than disturbed, “we know that His Grace is no unnecessary component of this critical process.  In fact, he is the most welcome participant!  How fortunate we are indeed to not only have a leader who is so personally invested in the people, and who has the necessary wisdom to properly judge each case we present him.  Each member of the prime family is educated from birth for this very purpose, and even with the advancing age of His Grace, I can tell you from experience that he executes judgment with the utmost prudence and compassion.”

This was another satisfying answer to the other students, but not to Ila, and she would not be lobbed in with her classmates so long as she was allowed the floor.

“The Superior General wields the authority to make a decision without question, to veto an affirmative or even negative decision of the committee,” she began once again.  “You also say the Superior General can bring cases of his own to the bureaus of observation and assessment, outside the typical procedure mandated in the program’s protocols.”

“Yes…”

“In other words, His Grace is ultimately the one to decide a population’s fate, not the committee.”

Her words left nearly everyone floored.  A professor began to approach from outside the rows, sliding past other students on his way to Ila.  She did not know if she was about to be asked to sit back down, or escorted out.  However, she felt a desire to press on, to not yield to Ankaris.

“The Superior General is undeniably well educated,” she said, “and we can trust that His Grace will judge any case based on whether or not the actions of the populations under review are in harmony with the best interests of the Coalition.”

As Ila spoke, the audience seemed to relax.  They likely thought Ila was affirming her own faith in the Superior General, but that bubble was popped immediately.

“The Coalition’s best interests,” she repeated, as if speaking to herself.  “That assumes there is an objective definition for this term, rather than a subjective one.  How can we know that the Superior General’s understanding of the Coalition’s best interests is the most valid, and not simply biased?”

In that moment, the professor at the end of the row seemed ready to pounce on Ila, and her classmates had surely severed all ties with her.  But before the sparks could truly fly, Ankaris stomped one seismic foot onto the stage upon which he stood.  This was not a temperamental gesture, but a formal one, the motion made before a salute, and prior to an oath of obedience to the prime family and the Coalition.  Yet it was also a stomp that seemed to bring the entire universe to a standstill.  The entire universe, and all humanity with it—all but the young woman watching from the mezzanine.

Suppressing what might have appeared to be a rather strange grin, this young woman from the prime family was enthralled with the girl below her, standing resolutely if not somewhat timidly before her superior.  “I thought so,” she murmured to herself, nearly giddy.

Straighter than the stoutest of trees, and just as immoveable, Ankaris remained collected as he nailed his gaze into the girl before him.  With delicacy and decorum, all to accent what would have otherwise sounded like the stern voice of a father, he delivered what he knew would be received as the final word.

“Young lady, there is one grand principle which you must learn if you ever wish to be involved in any capacity in the administration of the Coalition.  It is this: when His Grace, the Superior General, has spoken… the thinking has been done.”

Like branches wafting in a fierce wind, all eyes turned from Ankaris and back to Ila.  No one dared to even take a breath as they awaited her response.

She did not understand why, but despite everything, Ila was able to look back at the master proxy with the composure of her mother and the confidence of her father.  With a grateful smile, she said, “Master Proxy, thank you.”

With not even one pair of hands to clap in all the auditorium, Ila ended her questions and returned to her seat.

The presentation was ended and the meeting adjourned quickly.  And as everyone rushed from their seats and to the exits, no one risked getting close to Ila Enqelin.  She didn’t care, though.  Graduation was only days away, and most of the people around her would take their politicking to agriculture and infrastructure, not the military—not Rededication.  She would never see them again; it made no difference if they disappeared now, rather than in a few days time.

With everyone trying to dodge her, Ila felt like she could freely exit the auditorium.  Ignoring the curdling sensation in her stomach, she repressed the urge to critically consider what she had done.  That would come later.  For now, she decided, she would simply escape the scene.  But an adult hand rested firmly on her shoulder.  Turning about, she came face to face with a professor, one with whom she was not familiar.  She expected righteous indignation from him, a fierce lecture for her highly improper behavior; however, the man standing before her only looked down at her with seriousness.  He did not grip her shoulder, but he still held her consciously, intentionally.

“Your presence has been requested,” was all he said.

Ila followed the professor without a word.  The two of them moved against the current of departing students, on their way to another exit.  Stepping into a corridor outside the auditorium, Ila’s heart skipped a beat when she realized the professor had disappeared, and that she was now standing before two towering figures in all gray armor—automatons.  Though these machines carried only basic equipment, they were still armed.

“Good afternoon,” one machine said in a cheery, artificial voice.  “Please follow us.”

As on edge as she was, Ila still complied.  She might have had a chance to run from the professor, but if someone had sent an armed escort for her, she knew escape was no longer an option.

They walked down the corridor, then through a door that was marked as only for authorized faculty and staff only.  As they proceeded further into the building, moving gradually upward on occasional stairwells, Ila began to consider all the irresponsible moves she had made in the auditorium.  She then played through all the horrible things that might happen to her shortly.  Granting herself no mercy, she berated herself for having taken things so far, and out of passion alone.  She had violated one of the most important lessons her parents had taught her: to never let her emotions outrun her rationality.

After hiking up another flight of stairs, Ila wondered where these automatons were taking her.  She had never been in this part of the building; giving it more thought, she didn’t even know this area existed.  Led out into another hallway, which was ornately decorated from floor to ceiling, she realized where she was, as well as the reason why she did not recognize the area.  This was the section of the academy designated specifically for visiting dignitaries and other important guests.

The automatons led her to a decoratively-carved wooden door, then turned around to look down at her.

“Please, step inside,” said the same machine as before, as cheerful as before.

Ila shook from fear.  No part of her wanted to enter this room, but she knew she had no choice.  Even with the kind voice they had used for these mechanized soldiers, she knew they were still killing machines nonetheless.  If they really wanted to, this far from the rest of the general student body and faculty of the academy, they could kill her without anyone being the wiser.

Without hands, and in a view only she could see, Ila tabbed her way through her net, all the way to her one hidden contact.  Staring thoughtfully at the message that would serve as her sister’s wakeup call, she readied herself to hit the button and let the war begin.  Preparation, or perhaps insurance.  In any case, considering the option to call her guardian—or at least her vindicator—Ila found what strength she needed.

Knocking twice at the dense, wooden door, she turned the handle and stepped inside.

The door closed behind her, as if to trap her in the room.  She paused to quickly survey her surroundings, but stopped when she found a small white table at the center of the otherwise unfurnished sitting room.  Two chairs, made of thin, swirling metal, sat on either side of the round table.  One of the two chairs was already occupied by someone Ila recognized after a few seconds.

The girl from the mezzanine watched Ila from her seat.  “Please, join me,” she said, wafting a hand to her guest.

Not daring to hesitate, Ila took her seat.  With the chance to have a closer look at the girl from the mezzanine, Ila confirmed to herself that she did not recognize her.

Before setting out on her own, Ila’s father had had her memorize a series of pictures, the faces of not only the Superior General himself, but of the rest of the politically active members of the prime family.  The prime family organized its hierarchy by generations, with the eldest surviving generation composing the governing body, while any younger generations spent their years in study and preparation.  Since the deaths of the rest of the prime family’s first sphere, its eldest generation, only the Superior General remained to govern the Coalition.  As with all generations before, this vacancy was filled by the eldest children of the second sphere who were invited to assist the Superior General in all administrative affairs as interim members of the first sphere.  During this transitive period, prior to the death of the last member of the family’s eldest generation—the Superior General—all members of the second sphere prepared themselves to replace the previous first sphere.

Those were the people Ila’s father had shown her, one elderly male and a number of other males and females only a few years older than herself—people her father told her she should be aware of.

The two girls sat in silence for some time as the one royal studied Ila with a reserved though pleasant smile.  Given the age of the girl sitting before her, though, Ila guessed this girl was a member of the second sphere and was therefore too young to join her elder siblings in tending to the affairs of her family and the government.  She didn’t look much older than Ila, in fact.

The girl before her had thick, dark hair, which flowed long down her back.  The longest locks of her bangs had been braided and pulled to the back of her head, neatly woven into intricate patterns.  As she watched Ila with amethyst eyes, beautiful and calming, Ila wondered if these eyes were only calming in order to lull their victims into a false sense of security.  In any case, they stared deeply into Ila, making her feel as if this young woman was merely awaiting her opening to enter and ransack her guest’s mind.

Since she had entered the room, Ila didn’t chance making any noise, let alone speaking.  But time had ticked on and the girl across the table had said nothing other than to call Ila over.

Attempting to remain formal, yet stuttering as she spoke, Ila said, “I…  I’m terribly sorry…  For the uproar I caused today.  It was untoward.  I beg your pardon.”

Taking in a deep breath, the girl at last spoke.  “You’re not sorry,” she said simply.

Ila raised her eyes, shocked back into fear.  “Please, Your Highness, I truly do apologize.  My behavior was atrocious, and I beg your forgiveness for any offense I may have caused you.”

The girl’s lips pursed in thought before she replied.  “No, you’re not sorry.  And neither am I.”

Ila had no idea how to reply to that.  Leaning back helplessly in her chair, she watched as the girl’s ostentatious smile unraveled into something a little more uncontained, almost flippant.

“You don’t know who I am,” the girl stated, speaking just as plainly as before.  “I’m a princess of the second sphere.  My name is Ruhnaria Lopeiahnian Rillinen, of the A’adelisto family—the prime family.”

This lengthy name nearly made Ila’s head spin, and she didn’t dare try to say it back.  That must have been written all over her face, however, because the princess’s mouth curled into an even more uncontrollable smile, as if she was trying not to laugh.  Watching these mannerisms, Ila found herself not only afraid, but bewildered.

“That name is way too ornate for its own good,” the princess nearly snickered.  “If you would, I’d prefer that you call me Ru.”

“I could never, Your Highness,” Ila insisted on impulse.  “I would simply disrespect such a—”

An honest giggle stopped Ila completely.  “You don’t need to stand on such ceremony,” Ru said in a sweet voice.  “Please, just relax.”

Ila found those amethyst eyes thoughtfully examining her once again, staring into the albino girl fidgeting in her chair in ways that would have offended any other royal to death.

“You’re really afraid, aren’t you?” Ru observed.  “I didn’t mean to scare you like that.  Really, just calm down.  This isn’t the kind of visit you think it is.”

Unsure of what she could mean, Ila risked another look up at Ru.  Before she could even dare muster up the courage to ask, Ru continued.

As if reading directly from a dossier, Ru recited, “Ila Enqelin, born on the planet Eilikh, one of the core worlds, in a city called Kanna.  Your mother’s name was Suo Ellam, and your father was Aurin Nous; they chose Enqelin as their family name.  They waited for a while to have children, but their first child was your older sister Arras.  You were born sometime later.  Both your parents were engineers, and for most of your life they were also high-ranking members of a Rededication bureau of observation and assessment which had jurisdiction over Earth.  Your sister was also in the Rededication program; officially she was described as a ‘strategic consultant’ due to her numerous achievements in and natural aptitude for tactical warfare.”  Flexing her smile, Ru leaned back in her own chair.  “You’re a pretty interesting girl, steeped so deeply in the Rededication program.”

“My family was very involved,” Ila meekly replied.

Still smiling, Ru leaned forward again, resting her head on her knuckles, her elbow anchored to the table.  “How does a girl with a family like yours grow to have such a bad taste in her mouth for Rededication?” she asked, sounding strangely casual now, almost even playful.

As if averting her gaze, Ila looked away; despite the airs she put on, she just didn’t have the strength to look back at this girl anymore—at Ru.

“I suppose no child is necessarily the product of their immediate environment,” Ru sighed when Ila would not reply.  “But your family weren’t just low-level assistants in the program; they were key members.  To say nothing of your parents, your sister was especially important.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Ila muttered without thinking.  Catching her coarse response, she hastily added, “Your Highness.”

“I thought I said to drop the ceremonialism!  You’re so bad at it anyway,” Ru said with an unbridled laugh.  “I guess I’m no good at it either, though.  All I mean is that your sister wasn’t just a consultant to Rededication—she was an operator.”

“I… I’m not at all sure what you mean,” Ila said, trying not to freeze up.  “If I may ask, what is an operator?”

“No, no, no, don’t try that,” Ru countered, wagging a finger at Ila, theatrically scolding her.  “I know everything about your family, Ila, so there’s no point trying to play dumb.  Besides, it’s not exactly a leap to assume that your family would know a bit more about Arras’ occupation than just ‘she was a consultant.’  The Coalition plans for this sort of thing.  That means you and your family are suspect.  Add that to the fact that the one surviving member of the Enqelin family has blatantly anti-establishment leanings…  Well, let’s just say you’re lucky I approached you first.”

Receding back to her side of the table, Ru looked back at Ila with a more mature and respectful mien.

“I really am sorry about your family, Ila” she said, speaking with a powerfully genuine honesty that Ila could not even try to dispute.  “But if Arras was the only one to have died, your parents would be the ones under investigation, to probe and figure out how much they actually knew about the Rededication program and what Arras was doing.  But now you’re the only member of the Enqelin family, Ila, the only one to look into, and you’re making a lot of waves about—of all things!—Rededication.”

Ila didn’t answer.  Her fear returned manifold, and she found her way once again to that secret contact in her net, to Arras’ wakeup call, to the rallying cry that would summon the three people Ru and the Coalition thought were dead.  Looking past the transparent menus over her eyes, Ila could see Ru leaning in over the table again, smiling just as much as before.

Lifting a hand to her mouth, as if to whisper to Ila, she said in a hush, “This is the part when you ask me what it is I want.”

Her attention darting back and forth between Ru and the last message she may ever send, Ila managed to piece together a sentence.  “W-what do you want?”

A new smile spread over Ru’s face, one right at home with the repertoire of others she had shown off in this short time, yet one which was also different.  The others were lighthearted, amusing even.  This smile was lively, too, yet far warmer.  It was a smile that, even more than the others, didn’t feel like it could belong to those of the prime family Ila had studied before, let alone to someone who had been at all touched by Rededication.  There was purity, not without its burdens to bear, yet determined, and perhaps even optimistic.  It was like a sun: bright on its own, and warming whoever it shined on, including Ila.  Sitting before this smile, Ila felt her fear wash away.  Closing the menus of her net and basking in Ru’s smile, she felt at peace.

“You were going to complete your regency under your relative on Eilikh after graduation, right?” Ru asked.

“Yes, I am,” Ila answered, feeling as if she could truly speak freely.

Still smilingly, Ru replied bluntly, “No, you’re not.  Instead, you’ll be mentored by the first princess of the second sphere of the prime family.  That’s me, by the way, in case you forgot.”

Ila was stunned, but she still couldn’t find it in herself to be afraid.  It didn’t feel at all like a regal authority had taken Ila’s fate out of her own hands, but as if a friend had simply said something strange.

“Why would you want to mentor me?” Ila managed to ask.

“I believe you and I want the same thing, Ila.”

“What’s that?”

With another wild smile, and landing the tip of her finger near the tip of Ila’s nose, Ru gave her answer.

“To end Rededication for good.”