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Millie, Clem has come to learn, is more of a creature of habit than she would have thought. She wakes up at the same time, she works out at the same time, she eats breakfast with Leap in the cafeteria at the same time, and then she heads out into the prison yard, where she sits and studies the same section of the high, concrete wall. 

 

Clem reviews the tape over and over. This particular stretch of wall doesn't seem any more or less secure than any other, but with criminals one can never be sure, and Clem isn’t about to have an escape on her watch. She can only imagine what her mother would say about that

 

The only thing that marks this particular section as different at all the large mural along the wall of some Kesh ancestor or other, their sword held aloft in battle. It's very striking, even if Millie's curiosity in it doesn't make a lot of sense. After all, Millie is a sniper. Millie does not have a sword, not would it be practical to give her one.

 

Clem studies her carefully before she approaches. Millie is either unaware of her, or is ignoring her. Both are, annoyingly, equally likely.

 

She moves towards Millie, keeping her steps small and precise, stopping a pace away. Millie hands twitch in her lap, the only acknowledgement that she’s noticed Clem’s presence. Clem turns towards the mural. Although she’s related to this person, somehow, she doesn’t feel at all like them.

 

They remind her a little of her mother, that way.

 

Clem clears her throat. "You're here quite a lot."

 

Millie looks up at her, leaning back on her hands. "So? I'm allowed time in the yard."

 

"Yes, but you're here quite a lot,” says Clem, “In front of this painting."

 

Millie shrugs. "Not much else to look at in this place."

 

Clem supposes she's right. She hums, turning her attention back to the datapad in her hands. Millie follows her gaze. 

 

"We heading out?"

 

"Yes," says Clem. 

 

Millie sighs, overly dramatic, and stands. “I suppose I can make time in my busy schedule for you.”

 

“You haven’t been assigned any activities in here today,” says Clem.

 

Millie shoots her a grin, too sharp to be kind. “It was a joke. I guess you don’t have those on Stel Kesh.”

 

Clem bites the inside of her cheek. She will not engage in petty squabbling, she will rise above this, as her station demands. She lets out a long breath through her nose, turning towards the doors that will lead them back inside the prison and then out again. She’s careful to keep her steps as measured as they were on her approach, holding the datapad in a white-knuckled grip. The entire point of her coming down in person was to show her mother that she was in control of the team she had been assigned to, that they would follow her orders despite their own interests. If she had to call the guards to drag Millie to the train car, it would spoil things, somewhat.

 

After an agonising half-second, she can hear Millie follow her. Clem lets out a breath of relief as quietly as possible.

 

“So this trip must be a big one,” says Millie, “if you came down here to get me yourself.”

 

“All of our missions hold equal importance to me,” says Clem.

 

Millie snorts. “Right.”

 

“And what’s that supposed to mean?”

 

MIllie raises her eyebrows. “Last week we escorted some crates from one place to another. Not exactly the same as a life-or-death battle. I was kind of hoping for something a little more interesting.”

 

Clem’s wrist throbs at the reminder of a more interesting assignment and for a moment the walls tilt and shift, turning into the fractured remains of the Panther’s cockpit, red lights flashing and the crunching sound of her mech being torn apart- and then she blinks, and everything is fine. She lets out a breath, slowly, like Sovereign Immunity has been telling her to do in moments that wear on her patience.

 

Millie’s cocky expression falters for a moment. “Princess? You okay in there?”

 

“I’m fine,” says Clem, a little more sharply than she’d meant to.

 

MIllie’s expression shutters. “Whatever. Just trying to be nice .”

 

“That’s not why you’re here,” says Clem.

 

“Right,” says Millie, “I’m here to do your dirty work for you.”

 

“I get just as dirty as you,” says Clem, trying to ignore the heat in her cheeks.

 

“Nah,” says Millie, “it only looks that way because you wear white.”

 

Clem ignores her until they reach the train.

 

The mission is, by MIllie’s standards, a more interesting one. They’re to be scouts this time, brushing up against the Apostolos-Kesh border. Crysanth has gotten word of Apostolosian troop movement in that area, and she would like it confirmed.

 

There is, in fact, troop movement in that area, which Clem discovers when the troops in question start shooting at her.

 

She feels like she’s doing better as a pilot, at least for the first exchange of fire. She takes cover, the Panther twisting around her as she directs Leap, Millie and Sovereign Immunity to their tasks. Only Sovereign Immunity obeys, and when the checks back over on Leap and Millie they’re in a far worse position, the enemy too close to them for their weaponry to be effective.

 

Sovereign Immunity is at her back. He’d go to them if she told him too, but he’s holding off the majority of the Apostolosian forces. She has a strong feeling that if she tells him to go elsewhere, there’s a good chance that only he survives.

 

The Apostolosians press closer. In her earpiece, she can hear the grating sound of metal-on-metal as one of the Apostolosian mechs grabs the Heads Up, followed by Leap’s yell. Millie’s talking to him, speaking fast, trying to convince him to climb into her cockpit, but all that will do is trap them both.

 

Clem steels herself, the Panther lurching as she moves towards Leap and Millie.

 

She fires a round, mostly intending to get the Apostolosian’s attention, hitting the a couple of the Apostalsian mechs in the back. They turn away from Leap and Millie and Clem fires again, a few of the Apostolosians breaking off, coming after her. Clem takes to the skies. The Panther’s fast, she can out-maneuver them, she’s been practising .

 

Clem feels several direct hits to the Panther, slamming her against the wall of the cockpit. More practise will probably be required.

 

It takes her a moment to get her breath back before she leads them away until she’s back in Kesh territory, doubling back to help MIllie pull the Heads Up back over the border while Sovereign Immunity lays down covering fire. Clem doesn’t stop until they reach the drop point for the mechs, her breath ragged in her ears.

 

She can see Sovereign Immunity and Millie get out of their mechs, pulling Leap out of the cockpit of the Heads Up. He doesn’t look as bad as she thought he would. He’s still alive.

 

Clem takes a deep breath in, letting it out slowly before she opens the Panther.

 

“There she is!” says Leap, “One of our heroes!”

 

Clem freezes.

 

Sovereign Immunity shifts his grip on Leap’s side, where he’s holding him upright. “Ignore him, he’s lost a lot of fluid.”

 

Leap’s head rolls to the side. “Don’t feel bad, you’re one of our heroes too, right Millie?”

 

“Sure Leap,” says Millie, “Let’s get you somewhere to lie down, okay?”

 

She helps Sovereign Immunity carry Leap to the train, where the medical personnel are waiting. Clem waits until they’re inside to follow. It’s undignified to limp in front of them, after all. She makes it to the train on her own, heading for her private medical room, but the train lurches under her feet and she stumbles.

 

Someone catches her arm before she hits the ground, holding on until Clem gets her feet back under her. Clem takes a steadying breath, and looks up.

 

It’s Millie.

 

Clem’s stomach sinks a little. She opens her mouth, then closes it again.

 

Millie raises her eyebrows. “Didn’t see you get hit.”

 

Clem pulls herself out of Millie’s grip. “Of course I did. We all did.”

 

Something flickers over Millie’s face. “Right.”

 

“We all did,” says Clem, “And maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad if you and Leap had just listened to me!”

 

“Right,” says Millie, “Because you know best.”

 

“I know better than you ,” says Clem.

 

Millie takes a step forward. “Listen to me you spoiled little-”

 

“Your highness?” says Sovereign Immunity, from behind them.

 

Clem turns slightly. He’s looking past her, to Millie. Millie rolls her eyes, her posture relaxing back into a slouch.

 

“Whatever.”

 

Sovereign Immunity steps back, letting Clem into her medical suite.

 

“Lapdog,” mutters Millie.

 

Sovereign Immunity pauses, just for a moment, before he closes the door behind him, leaving Clem alone with her doctors. She can hear him walk away, moving away from Millie in the train car.

 

It’s just bruising, enough for her to be uncomfortable but nothing to be worried about. It’s much less painful than standing in front of Crysanth for the better part of an hour, going over and over her mistakes.

 

“Sovereign Immunity told me that you had been practising,” says Crysanth, “but I have yet to see any proof of that. Perhaps that was something he told me under your direction?”

 

Clem’s side throbs. She’s careful to hold herself standing straight, her hands clasped behind her back. “I have been practising.”

 

Crysanth hums, looking down at the footage from one of the Panther’s cameras. She tapped her stylus on the side of the datapad, rewinding the footage. She makes a quiet tsking sound.

 

“Clearly more practise will be required.”

 

Clem curls her toes, pressing them against the side of her shoes. 

 

“Yes mother.”

 

After what feels to Clem like hours of watching footage of herself in slow motion, Crysanth leaves. The small entourage of staff leaves with her, following after in a whirlwind of activity.

 

The palace is quiet as Clem walks back to her room, moving more slowly now that there are no eyes upon her. She’s careful to keep her steps measured until she closes the door behind her, allowing herself the luxury of a wince as she peels off her clothes. Her side is an ugly yellow-purple colour, marking where the straps on the Panther’s cockpit had stopped her from fully colliding with the mech’s wall. She runs her hand along it, letting out a sharp exhale at the pain.

 

Her communicator beeps, informing her of a document transfer being sent to her datapad. Intel to review, news to keep up with. Clem slowly pulls on a nightgown, wincing again as she climbs into bed. She can review whatever she needs to lying down.

 

She manages about five pages before she falls asleep, datapad still in hand.

 

Her bruises have barely begun to fade before they’re sent on another mission. This one thankfully goes better than the last, their mechs take a battering but none of them are damaged as much as they’ve been previously. Millie and Leap still don’t listen to her, but she’d managed to run enough interference between them and the Apostolosian forces that they didn’t sustain too much damage. She even manages something approaching dexterity in the Panther, maneuvering Old Glory out of harm’s way and only being clipped by return fire.

 

Millie nods to her as they get out of their mechs, and Clem gives a jerky nods back, turning away quickly to school her expression into something appropriately neutral.

 

They sit together on the train back, Millie and Leap on one side of the traincar, while she and Sovereign Immunity sit opposite each other on the other side. Leap chews loudly and Clem makes a face, turning towards the window. The snowy countryside rushes past, a blur of white a grey. With the rocking of the train, it’s almost peaceful.

 

Clem’s communicator buzzes on the table. It’s her mother, of course. Clem blinks at it,  closing her eyes for a moment to steel herself before she answers it.

 

“Hello-”

 

“Clementine,” begins Crysanth, with the tone of someone already part-way through a vexing conversation.

 

Clem presses her lips together, well aware that she will be expected not to speak until her mother is finished. It takes a long time for Crysanth to even draw breath, and the litany of disappointments is long, as usual. The only difference is that this time Clem can feel the eyes of the others on her. Millie and Leap have stopped whispering to each other, shooting each other looks as Crysanth continues.

 

“Your priorities, Clementine,” says Crysanth, “You really must do better. Too often when I review your work while on assignment, I see that you have put your team before your objectives.”

 

“So I should have just let Sovereign Immunity get shot ?” says Clem, the words out before she can stop herself.

 

“Obviously,” says Crysanth, “I had thought you’d been trained better than to think otherwise.”

 

Clem feels heat rush to her face. She looks down, feeling her mother’s disapproving gaze through the audio of the call.

 

“Are there still enemy combatants in the area?” says Crysanth.

 

“Yes, we- I think so,” says Clem.

 

“Then you should turn back immediately and remain until the job is done,” says Crysanth, her cold tone brooking no argument.

 

Clem nods. “Yes mother.”

 

“And Clem?”

 

Clem looks up.

 

“Be sure to remove any survivors. I would hate to have to move you to an even less desirable position.”

 

There’s a long pause after Crysanth hangs up the call.

 

“Yikes,” says Leap.

 

“It’s-” Clem throat aches, sharply. Thirst, probably. It’s been a strenuous few hours.

 

“If mothers are like that I’m kind of glad I don’t have one,” says Millie.

 

“She’s not- it’s fine.” Clem takes a slow breath in and lets it out again. “It is what it is.” She swallows. “Now, the, uh, the plan of action is to- We should-”

 

She looks down at the datapad. The words blur a little and she feels a rush of heat to her cheeks again. She will not cry. She will not .

 

“Um,” says Sovereign Immunity, “May I, your highness?”

 

“Very well,” says Clem, “Go ahead.”

 

Sovereign Immunity organises for the train to be stopped and reversed, guides her in choosing a spot where they can refuel and repair their mechs to continue their task. He steps out to speak to whoever it is one speaks to in order to direct the train. Clem looks out the window again. Her shoulder throbs every time the train takes a corner a little too fast, and she winces.

 

Millie flops down next to her and Clem looks up.

 

“What is it?”

 

Millie raises her eyebrows. “What, I can’t sit here?”

 

“You-” Clem sighs. “Sit wherever you like. We’ll be departing soon enough.”

 

Millie nods, putting her feet up on the seat next to Clem. Clem wrinkles her nose. She sees out of the corner of her eye, Millie jerk her head slightly, and then Leap is sitting down next to her. He shakes a bag of chips in her direction.

 

“No, thank you,” says Clem.

 

Leap shrugs.

 

Millie pokes Leap in the side with her foot. “Hey.”

 

Leap’s lens zooms in and out, his version of rolling his eyes, but he angles the packet towards Millie. She takes a handful, grinning at him.

 

“So,” says Millie, “We’re headed back out again.”

 

Clem lets out a breath. “I know you heard, you don’t have to patronise me.”

 

Millie holds up her hands. “Just stating our plans.”

 

She pokes Leap in the side again and he sighs and hands her the whole bag before reaching into his jacket and pulling out a fresh bag. He opens in and takes a few chips for himself, then pauses. He holds the bag out to Clem, the salty-artificial flavour wafting towards her in the train’s air conditioning.

 

“I- yes, okay,” says Clem, taking a few, “thank you.”

 

Leap grins. The expression is a little odd on his face, as though his chosen mouth didn’t have grinning considered as an option in its design.

 

“Hey,” says Leap, “no problem. Just as long as you don’t take as many as Millie does, I still need to eat some .”

 

Millie laughs, her mouth full.

 

The chips are salty-sweet, the artificial aftertaste clinging to Clem’s tongue as they climb back into their mechs to finish their assignment, oddly comforting.



--



It’s strange. Clem never used to find victory parties so distasteful. She actually used to enjoy them quite a bit, although that was before she had to sit through them with a throbbing wrist. Despite the cold outside it’s hot inside the palace, making the long gloves she has to wear to hide the cast on her wrist excruciating.

 

They wouldn’t give her painkillers either, under her mother’s orders. It was framed as a practicality - after all, she couldn’t drink if she took painkillers, and that would rather give the game away, wouldn’t it?

 

“Yes mother,” says Clem.

 

She does the rounds through the various groups as quickly as possible, hiding as best she can from Gucci’s eyes as she ducks between the groups. She wonders if anybody’s noticed that she’s been alternating which hand she’s been shaking hands with. Her wrist aches sharply as someone-or-other in a military dress uniform jostles her on their way past, and she can’t quite suppress her small sound of pain.

 

“Your highness?”

 

Clem refocuses on the person in front of her, trying to remember the thread of conversation. They were telling her about some kind of experiment with Divines. She’s sure it would be fascinating, if she could concentrate.

 

“I apologise,” says Clem, “I- I’m just remembered, I have to go make a very important call, if you’ll excuse me?”

 

She doesn’t wait for their answer before she turns, heading towards the open doors of the balcony. Clem spots Gucci on the other side of the glass door, quickly stepping to the side, out of sight of the balcony. From her new position she can just peek behind the bar. She takes a deep breath in, her eyes flicking back to the party. Her mother is deep in conversation with military figures. Sovereign Immunity is slowly sipping a drink with Leap, as he eats his way through a tray of cocktail food. Millie is nowhere to be seen, which might be a good thing given the events of the last party she attended.

 

If she were to disappear, right now, no one would notice.

 

She quickly heads for the staff door, grabbing a bottle from behind the bar as she goes. If she can’t take painkillers then she can at least get drunk. Anything to take her mind off the throb in her wrist.

 

Clem walks as quickly as she can manage from room to room, until her body begins to protest. She collapses onto a bench in the greenhouse. It’s as good a spot as any. She rarely comes here, and so anybody looking for her is unlikely to check the greenhouse for her.

 

She pulls off her gloves, making a frustrated noise as it gets stuck on her cast.

 

“Need a hand, princess?”

 

Clem’s head snaps up. “Millie. Aren’t you supposed to stay in sight of the guards?”

 

MIllie shrugs. “Probably. Aren’t you supposed to be at the party?”

 

Clem pauses for a moment, her hands fluttering to her lap. “I can go where I please.”

 

Millie snorts. “Right.”

 

Heat crawls down Clem’s arm, making it impossible to keep still. She starts tugging at the glove again.

 

“Oh, for- here-”

 

Millie bats Clem’s hands away, tugging at the glove until she peels it off Clem’s arm. Clem lets out a breath of relief, the humid air on her skin a welcome relief.

 

“Don’t know why you chose such a ridiculous outfit if you hated it so much,” says Millie.

 

Whether it’s tiredness, the throbbing in her arm, the wine she had had to get through the earlier part of her evening or all three but instead of ignoring her, as she’s supposed to do, Clem opens her mouth.

 

“I’ve been informed that a broken bone is unseemly,” says Clem, “Apparently it's an affront to the Kesh legacy to have a broken bone.”

 

There’s a pause, and then Millie laughs . “Wow, who said that ?”

 

“My mother,” says Clem, because why not? If Millie betrays her, it will be through violence, not through some society gossip.

 

“And so you’re going to get wasted in this jungle as revenge?”

 

“It’s a greenhouse,” says Clem, and reaches for the bottle with her uninjured hand.

 

Millie laughs again. It’s not a terrible sound, actually.

 

She sits down next to Clem, the skirt of her dress swishing against the floor as she tucks her legs under her. She holds out her hand. Clem blinks at it, and then looks up at Millie’s face.

 

Millie makes a face at her. “I mean, you’re not going to drink that by yourself , right?”

 

Clem pauses, examining the bottle properly for the first time. Judging by the alcohol content, it’s probably meant to be more of a mixer than drunk straight, and she just because she doesn’t want to be at the party doesn’t mean she wants to cause a scene . Despite her earlier plans, it’s probably ill-advised to drink the entire bottle by herself.

 

“I suppose they do say you shouldn’t drink alone,” says Clem.

 

“Atta girl,” says Millie, and plucks the bottle from Clem’s hand.

 

They pass the bottle back and forth in relative silence, until Millie’s foot slips a little from where she’s draped herself over the bench, poking Clem in the side and sending her into a fit of giggles. Millie laughs too, the sound bouncing off the glass roof and back down to them.

 

“What are you laughing at?” says Millie.

 

“You know- you know, I don’t know,” says Clem, dissolving into giggles again. She feels light .

 

Millie bumps their shoulders together, and Clem bumps back. Her giggles fade into a warm feeling, covering the pain in her wrist and the twisting of her stomach.

 

Clem is dreadfully hungover the next morning, but she almost doesn’t mind.



--



Their next mission is a complete disaster. The intel is wrong from the start, and they’re outnumbered almost before they realise the enemy is upon them. Clem tries, she really does, but she can’t manage to get the Panther to move fast enough, can’t seem to hit enough targets to make a difference.

 

The Panther takes a direct hit, the red lights flashing to warn of an imminent breech.

 

“Your highness!” comes Sovereign Immunity’s voice over her earpiece, “You have to bail out! Bail out now!”

 

Clem feels frozen, the straps of the cockpit tangled around her. There’s a ringing in her ears that she hadn’t been able to shake off since the last hit. Sweat drips into her eyes, stinging, and when she shakes her head to flick it off, her vision swims before her eyes.

 

She grips the straps, keeping herself upright. “I…”

 

“Can one of you get to her?” She hears Sovereign Immunity say.

 

“Yeah,” says Millie, “Yeah, hold on- Leap, can you cover me?”

 

“You got it,” says Leap.

 

She hears a series of explosions, the Panther’s cracked screens informing her that several of Leap’s shots have met their targets. She has half a second to feel pleased before something hits her from behind, bringing the Panther to its knees. Clem’s body jerks, slamming her into the side of the cockpit. Her head feels wet. She’s not sure if it’s from her or the Panther, but either way it’s not great.

 

“Your highness?” says Sovereign Immunity, “Clementine?”

 

“‘M here,” Clem manages, “I-”

 

She’s hit again, and the Panther’s interior lights flicker and go out. Clem spends a horrible, eternal second in darkness before the emergency lights flicker on.

 

“-em,” says Millie, her voice crackling over the low-power frequency, “if you can hear this, I’m almost to you, I need you to open your cockpit.”

 

Clem looks up. The emergency door release is just above her, just slightly out of reach.

 

“I need you to open up,” says Millie, “I can’t carry the Panther out of here, but I can carry you, so let’s go.”

 

Clem reaches, feeling the straps cut into her skin as she strains against them. Almost…

The Panther rattles, a proximity alert going off inside the cockpit. Clem ignores the shrill sound, almost there… almost…

 

The cockpit hisses open, blasting Clem with icy air. The sounds of the battle increase tenfold, enough to make her teeth ache. She struggles out of the straps, holding onto them as she leans out of the cockpit. The Stray Dog is pressed against the Panther, putting itself between Clem and the centre of battle.

 

When Clem looks back on this moment later, she will see Millie resplendent above her, bullets pinging off the shielding of her mech as she leans down to pull Clem out of the Panther’s crumbling cockpit and into her own. For now, the last thing Clem remembers seeing before she passes out is the moonlight around Millie’s head, the light illuminating her like a halo.



--



When Clem comes back into awareness, she can feel the world rocking from side to side, which is deeply unsettling until she manages to open her eyes. The train. She’s on the train. Of course. Clem lets out a breath.

 

“Your highness?”

 

Clem carefully turns her head to the side, wincing as the movement makes the muscles of her neck twinge. Sovereign Immunity is seated next to her looking a little rough around the edges but relatively unharmed.

 

“Sta-” Clem swallows around her dry throat. “Status report? Please.”

 

Sovereign Immunity’s lips quirk downwards. “We all got out.”

 

“The Panther?”

 

“I got it,” says Sovereign Immunity, “It’s probably going to be awhile before it’s flight-ready, it took even more of a beating that you did.”

 

Clem closes her eyes. Not as bad as if she’d lost it entirely but still. Not an ideal situation.

 

“I’m sure she’ll understand,” says Sovereign Immunity.

 

Clem opens her eyes. “Are you?”

 

Sovereign Immunity huffs a laugh. “No. I suppose not. I’ll speak to her, if you like.”

 

Clem sighs. “I doubt having my Sovereign Immunity speak to her will soften her. Best I do it.”

 

Sovereign Immunity nods. He stands, tucking his hands in his robes and then taking them out again. “I’ll let you get some rest.”

 

The room is quiet for a moment, after he leaves. Cleam’s eyes slide closed. Her whole body aches , especially the side of her head. She reaches up to clumsily feel at the thick bandage. Hopefully it won’t leave too large of a mark. The door opens, and Clem quickly drops her hand, tucking it back under the blanket..

 

“Knock knock!” says Leap. “We heard you were still alive!”

 

Clem forces her eyes open. Leap and Millie are standing in the doorway. There’s a few bruises between them and a large bandage on Millie’s shoulder but otherwise they both look okay. Millie pushes past Leap to sit in the chair Sovereign Immunity had been in moments ago, putting her feet up on Clem’s bed.

 

Excuse me,” says Clem.

 

“You’re excused,” says Millie.

 

Leap laughs, and tosses some pretzel’s from the bag he’s holding into his mouth. He steps closer to hold the bag out to her.

 

“No,” says Clem, “thank you.”

 

Millie reaches in and takes a handful, chewing in what has to be a deliberately obnoxious way. It doesn’t annoy Clem as much as she feels like it should.

 

“I suppose I should thank you,” says Clem.

 

“Yeah,” says Millie, “I mean, that’s usually what people do when someone saves their life.”

 

“I suppose it is,” says Clem.

 

There’s a long moment of quiet.

 

“So are you going to thank me, or what?” says Millie.

 

“I just did,” says Clem.

 

Millie huffs a laugh, rolling her eyes. “Right. Dunno what I expected-”

 

The door opens again, a doctor this time. He looks startled to see Millie and Leap. Clem supposes they are a somewhat odd sight for her room.

 

“Your highness?” says the doctor.

 

“Yes?” says Clem.

 

“I-” the doctor gives Millie and Leap another look. “I need to check your vitals. Standard procedure.”

 

Clem waves a hand. “Very well, get on with it.”

 

“I, uh, I’m afraid I’ll have to ask your… visitors… to leave,” says the doctor, “No synthetics or frogs allowed for this sort of thing-”

 

What did you just say?” says Clem.

 

The doctor blinks at her. “I-”

 

“While I believe that it is standard procedure not to discuss any Kesh family medical details with others, I don’t believe there is any such procedure that requires that kind of language in particular,” says Clem. She forces herself up on her elbow, hoping that no one notices how her arms shake with the effort. “ You are excused from duty.”

 

“Your highness, please, I have to check your-”

 

“Then ask someone else to do it,” snaps Clem, “These people are part of my team and by disrespecting them you are disrespecting me . Get out of my sight.”

 

The doctor’s jaw snaps shut. She keeps her eyes fixed on him until he closes the door behind him.

 

Clem huffs a breath. “The nerve…

 

“It’s not a big deal,” says Millie, “It’s not exactly something I haven’t heard before-”

 

“What?” says Clem, “From who?”

 

Millie shakes her head, giving her a crooked smile. “It’s not worth your time, honestly. It’s not like their opinions are gonna change. I don’t care what a bunch of jerks think anyway.”

 

Another doctor comes in, and Millie and Leap quietly slip out behind him. This doctor very wisely keeps his mouth shut, but Clem watches him carefully, wondering. It probably won’t be practical to fire all of them. It will just be a matter of doing it strategically enough so that they think twice before speaking ill of her team.

 

Her mother, perhaps predictably, doesn’t see it that way.

 

“You can’t be seen to be displaying favoritism,” says Crysanth, “Let alone an Apostolosian-”

 

“She betrayed Apostalos,” says Clem, “She’s hardly on their side-”

 

Crysanth continues as though Clem hasn’t spoken. “Add to that your disrespect for one of our medical team, someone who has been a valuable member of staff for year, on top of your abysmal display in battle-”

 

It goes on that way, for while. Clem is allowed to keep her team together as it is, but she is not to display any kind of favorable attitude to them in any way . Clem nods her way through the latter part, and then takes a long, slow walk to the palace armory. She hadn’t intended to give Millie anything in thanks for her rescue, but now she feels in quite a generous mood.

 

She bypasses the heavy weaponry, the guns, the axes, the shields. She briefly considers a display of armour, but even if she ordered someone to shape it to Millie’s size, it’s not really her style.

 

Clem stops in front of the swords. There’s one in particular, its’ long blade made from a glittering blue alloy. It reminds her of something. The sky at twilight. A vast ocean. Millie’s scales, perhaps.

 

In any case, she takes the sword.

 

It’s easy enough to bring it to Millie. A few people gently try to stop her, until she draws herself to her full height, arranging her expression to that of pure Kesh scorn. People in Kesh’s employ don’t generally argue with that particular expression.

 

Millie is in the yard by the mural, as usual. Clem stops a few paces away, looking down at the sword in her hands, and then back up at the mural.

 

An odd coincidence.

 

“I would’ve thought they’d keep you on bed rest,” says Millie.

 

“They tried,” says Clem, “I can rest later. I wanted to give you something.”

 

Millie looks up, blinking at the sword for a moment before she looks back at Clem.

 

“It’s for close-quarters combat,” says Clem, “Just in case anyone speaks to you that way again. I can’t always be around to defend you.”

 

“Right,” says Millie.

 

Clem hands her the sword, handle first. Millie stands as she takes it, making a few lazy motions through the air. Her form is a little loose, but it’s not terrible. Clem’s eyes slide to the mural behind them, the Kesh ancestor standing tall with their own glittering-blue sword.

 

“Hey, this is pretty cool,” says Millie. “You think they’d let me keep this with me in prison?”

 

Clem looks back to Millie. The sword suits her quite well, better even perhaps than the one in the mural suits her ancestor.

 

“Absolutely not,” says Clem. She hesitates for a moment. “But you won’t be here forever.”

 

“I thought that was kind of the deal?” says Millie, still curving the blade through the air.

 

“It is,” says Clem, “But all deals can be... renegotiated.”

 

Millie pauses, turning towards Clem. “Oh really?”

 

“Well,” says Clem. “Maybe. It depends on who’s in charge. Perhaps, when there’s someone new in charge…” She shrugs. “Or perhaps you’ll be gone before then. I hear war can be a confusing time.”

 

Millie grins. “Y’know, I think I’ve heard that too.”