Dess can't believe what the message on her communicator is saying. She shows it to Joli, who can't believe it either.
"The Palace? You're going to the Imperial Palace?"
Dess just shakes her head. "It's gotta be a mistake." She knew her new job was with the Government, but she's been expecting to be sent to some minor office of the Astronomy Ministry. Not the Imperial Palace.
She reads the message on the screen again. In a couple of hours' time - this very night - she's to report to the Imperial Palace for an urgent meeting with Queen Kathris. Dess grabs her hairbrush and starts brushing furiously in front of the big mirror in the hotel room.
"So," Joli manages, "d'ya still think Kathris is scary?"
Dess thinks the whole thing is scary. "I wish you could go with me."
Joli giggles nervously. "And meet Kathris? Wouldn't that go over well!" There's an awkward silence for a moment, and Joli adds, "Dess, do you think she suspects?" Her voice sounds distant and fearful now.
Dess shrugs. "How would I know? I've never been to the Palace before. I'll keep my eyes and ears open, though, in case she says anything. Have you heard from ... from her?"
"No. Amira hasn't contacted me. I mean, she must be pretty busy, with all the stuff that's going on." Joli gazes out the hotel window at the city lights.
"Well, maybe she'll call you in for some 'special assignment', right? I mean, officially you're an adviser to Queen Amira, so she can call you in any time. You're one of the Queen's courtiers."
"Sometimes I feel more like the Queen's courtesan. I love her, Dess. And I know she has feelings for me. But I still feel like I'm being used. Like I'm a pawn in some big game. And it's horrible." She turns away from the window.
Dess meets Joli's gaze, which is suddenly intense. "Yeah?"
"Listen, Joli, if me taking this job would create, you know, problems for you, I won't - "
"No, that's not what I mean. This is a great opportunity for you and I don't want you to miss it. But what I'm saying is, be careful of getting mixed up in Palace politics. Listen, most people - most intelligent life forms, everywhere in the universe - are basically good. But some of 'em are mean, and some of 'em are just evil. You remember the disaster at Fao Colony 12?"
"Yeah, it happened when we were still in school, didn't it? A power station on the colony had a runaway thermonuclear event, and it destroyed almost the whole colony. The Gilkesh homeworld sent a rescue party to help the survivors."
Joli nods. "That's true, and the rescue party saved hundreds of Fao lives, and they did good." She pauses. "But some of 'em did bad. What they didn't tell us in school ... was that some of the rescuers went through the wreckage looking for souvenirs."
Joli swallows hard before going on. "They found nurseries full of unhatched eggs, with Fao babies still inside. Had 'em bronzed."
The trip to the Imperial Palace seems to take an eternity.