Chapter 2:

Nona Regina

Red Storm Over Ganymede


**Tristan**

“Hello Marisol,” I said, addressing the Lord Chancellor’s Bio-droid, an exquisite specimen with dramatic plumage. I often thought the Lord Chancellor’s Bio-droids were where he got to express all his pent-up theatrical flair. “I take it Grandmother threw you out?”

Marisol simply shrugged with a shake of her feathers. “I’m used to it by now. At least I have company this time,” Marisol said, nodding her head in Isul’s direction.

Isul pulled the braided golden rope for the door chime - one of Nona Regina’s many antiquated eccentricities - and we stood outside the office door for several moments longer than protocol dictated before the Lord Chancellor himself opened the door.

Marcus was a short man with a red face and wispy gray hair that continually looked as if it was escaping the artificial gravity’s clutches. “Oh, hello, Prince Tristan,” he said, pumping my hand enthusiastically. “Most glad to see you safe, what with all that dodgy trouble near the border.”

“Glad to see you too, Marcus,” I replied. “Nice to see Grandmother is making good use of your time by forcing you to answer doors.” I gave the Lord Chancellor a wink.

“Ah, well, one does what they must for the Empire,” he replied. He tried to laugh, but it came out as a cough. The poor overworked man was easily flustered, but an excellent city administrator. And most importantly (to the nobility, at any rate), his lineage could be traced back to the original colony settlers.

I turned back to Isul and Marisol. “If you hear screams, be sure you pick a flattering picture for my funeral.” Marisol chuckled, but Isul only grimaced.

The Lord Chancellor ushered me inside the office, as if I was a guest who was visiting it for the first time. I was only too familiar with the tall, narrow windows, black marble desk, huge, oversize tapestry of the imperial crest, and with the woman who sat beneath it.

My Nona Regina, the Empress Dowager, was every inch the embodiment of divine right to rule. Born on the Uranian Moon of Titania over a hundred and fifty years ago, she was the fifth reincarnation clone of Saint Regina, one of the seventeen original colonial survivors of the first Uranian colony.

When the Jovian Empire had taken the Uranian Theocracy as a protectorate a hundred years ago during the height of the Martian-Jovian War, my grandfather married Nona Regina to seal the alliance between the two powers. It was also when the Jovian people had begun venerating the Uranian Saints and being answerable to the Oracle on Oberon.

Nona Regina rose from the throne-like chair behind her desk and came around to look at me. Though I was several inches taller, she still seemed to tower over me. Grandmother was wearing the crimson and gold state robes, and her red and gray hair was woven up into the huge imperial crown, adding several inches of height. Despite advanced age, she looked - if not young - then certainly well-preserved.

She stared down her long nose imperiously and said, “I’m disappointed, Tristan. After all that happened on the frontier, you still have that abomination trailing you?”

I arched an eyebrow, unwilling to rise to the bait so easily. “Glad you’re happy I’m still alive, and lovely to see you too, Nona Regina.” I kissed her cheek, my lips brushing across her unnaturally smooth skin.

She swirled around in her robes and sat back down on the throne. “My opinion is that you are putting any happiness I may hold in jeopardy by continuing to have a Bio-droid, when one alone is so obviously dangerous enough to put an entire fleet into haphazard disarray.”

I grimaced. “So you’ve read Admiral Nichols’ report?”

“By all the Saints, Tristan, you could have been killed by that creature she was letting run the ship,” Nona Regina gasped. “I am considering opening an investigation into the Admiral’s decision record after she allowed something like this to happen with you on board.”

That got under my skin. To barb and bait me was one thing, but Nona Regina threatening Grace? That was a different mater entirely. “Oh, so then I assume you’re going to review every decision by every single Admiral, Captain, and Commander in the Imperial Navy? Because they all use Bio-droids and Grace was no more dependent on hers than any of our other personnel. She and her crew did an exemplary job correcting the situation.” I let a grin slide across my face before I continued. “So good, in fact, that I’ve already given them an Imperial Commendation for superior services rendered.”

The Lord Chancellor looked back and forth between us as if watching an electroball match, and I could see beads of sweat gathering on his brow. Nona Regina said nothing, but after years spent sparring I could see her eyes narrow just a fraction and the muscle in her left cheek twitch - sure signs of her annoyance. Score one for me. I resisted a self-satisfied smile, but savored the score of victory for a moment nonetheless.

After several tense moments, she said, “Be that as it may, I must insist we finally move forward with my recommendation to review the use of Bio-droids for all military applications. It is patently clear they can’t be trusted.”

I stalked back and forth across the office, hands jammed in my pockets. “And that’s not a prejudiced position at all?” Sarcasm dripped, poison-like, from every word.

“The accused must be truly alive for allegations of prejudice to enter the picture,” she said coolly.

I slammed a hand on the marble desk. “They’re not just tools, Nona,” I yelled. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the Lord Chancellor trying to become one with a potted plant.

Rather than rising to my bait, Nona Regina stayed seated and met my anger with measured words. “That is exactly what they are, Tristan. No different than a scheduler or access port, just with an abominable simulacrum of human flesh.”

Score two to Nona Regina.

I took several deep breaths in an attempt to calm myself before speaking again. “Whether or not you feel that way about them, Imperial law treats Bio-droids with greater respect than office supplies.”

Nona Regina waved a dismissive hand, as if this discussion was tiresome. “Enough about this.” She turned away from me, and toward the Lord Chancellor. “Marcus, how are preparations going for the Coronation?”

Marcus mopped the sweat from his forehead, further disheveling his hair. “We have finally confirmed representatives from each of the Empire’s settlements. Dignitaries’ shuttles will begin arriving three standard weeks from now. Housing is going to be a bit difficult for the support staff, but I’m confident we can make everything work.”

Nona Regina nodded. “Very good. I look forward to further reports on all the details. Until later, Lord Chancellor.” She gave a wave of her hand, and Marcus bowed before scurrying from the room. Grandmother then turned back to me and added, “Tristan, now that we are away from prying ears, I trust you have secured a companion to accompany you to the ball after the Coronation?”

I resisted rolling my eyes. “You know, in between getting shot at, almost blown up, and being ejected into space, I knew I was forgetting something.”

Grandmother stood up and stalked over toward me, her shoe clicking on the glossy floor tiles. The mask of beatific calm she had worn in the Lord Chancellor’s presence melted away, revealing fury beneath. “May I ask why you have not done as I asked months ago?”

I felt my fists balling, my fingernails digging into the flesh of my hands to keep me calm. “Because it’s not important?” I sneered.

Nona Regina grabbed my forearm with surprising force for a woman her age. “It is important, you little fool. The entirety of the Empire will have its collective eye on you. With the right companion, you can bolster your position.” She looked down at her vise-like grip on my arm and suddenly let go, turning away. “Ideally, you would already be betrothed to some young lord or scion of industry.” She seemed to think better of her words, then added, “Well, most ideal would be a woman, but I know what gender most often warms your bed. Genetic surrogacy is very good at producing heirs with traits of both parents these days.”

I could feel heat come into my face, desperate to not talk about who ‘warmed my bed’ with my grandmother. “And I’ve told you, none of those puffed-up young men you seem to enjoy pushing my way are of any interest. They want the title, but not me.”

Nona Regina gave a bitter laugh. “How young you are, Tristan. In your position, love is a luxury. Power and stability are the most important qualities to a good partnership if you want the dynasty to last past your reign.”

I was quiet as I considered her words. I wanted to do what was best for the Empire, but to deny feelings and live a cold existence was not something I could bear for the next hundred years. Isul’s feelings had brought me back from the brink, has taught me the value of love and friendship.

And in every holo I had ever watched of my parents, their love for each other was apparent. “What about my mother and father?” I whispered.

Nona Regina whirled on me, her voice ragged and fierce. “Your parents were an exception, hardly the rule. And need I remind you, your parents’ emotional investment in the peace treaty ended up contributing to their deaths.” She hung her head, the fight suddenly draining out of her. “Do not make me go through that pain again.”

Third point, and match, to Nona Regina.

“We’ll talk about this later, Nona,” I said.

Nona Regina settled back in her throne, her arms resting on the plush armrests. “It will have to be sooner rather than later, Tristan. The next weeks are very full of activity. There’s your visit to the Oracle, which will take you away again for at least a week…” she began.

“We can talk about the details tomorrow, Nona.” I just wanted to get out of here before I lost control.

She nodded, and I let myself out of the office. Isul took one look at my red eyes and flushed face and took my hand as he led me back to our rooms.

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