Starlight through the tall windows casts a gentle, shadowless light over everything, like a light snow on a sleeping town. To human eyes, the inside of the Imperial Palace would appear dark, like the interior of a dimly-lit restaurant. For the nocturnal Gilkesh, it is aglow with the rich and subtle colors they favor: the lavish cushions of the furniture, midnight blue with silver trim, and the polished quartz tiles of the floor, a deep violet that seems to glow from within.
Kathris is looking at the map display on the wall of the great bedroom, its ornate circular frame decorated with carved dragons. Inside the display, stars and galaxies shift, rotate, zoom in and out. The holographic picture seems artificially deep. Kathris stares at the display intently while moving the controls. Amira watches her from under the warm blankets. She stirs audbily but Kathris does not notice her.
"I'd love to know what the Fao are up to," she says aloud without warning; Amira is genuinely uncertain whether the remark is addressed to her or to the map. She waits patiently for clarification.
"Look at this," Kathris says at last, from which Amira infers that she is not speaking to the map. A cloud of small dots appears around a nearly invisible star; at a motion from Kathris, the dots are labeled with the crest of the Fao Empire. "These images are twenty-seven standard years old - that's how far away this system is - but look how fast they covered this distance." She toggles the control to show the alien ships making a preternaturally fast journey.
Now Amira is getting interested. "Hmmm. That's easy enough to do if you use hyperspace ... but the Fao don't like to do that. They hate the idea of leaving their old universe for a new one."
"Exactly. So whatever it is, must be important enough to persuade them to break with tradition and use hyperspace like the rest of us."
Amira is standing behind Kathris now, still in her nightgown. Kathris is fully dressed in a long black skirt and a silk blouse with a geometric pattern in green and gold pastels. The tassels on the sleeves are an unusually frivolous touch for Kathris, Amira thinks, and they make her look vulnerable and irresistible. She slips her hand under the front of the blouse and strokes Kathris' tummy. Kathris starts to protest, but the night is still young.
Amira knows Kathris' mind as well as she knows the halls and windows of the Imperial Palace, better even, for she's never cared overmuch for the duties of office. If she had to do it over, she might almost ahve stayed a mid-level estate manager - but for Kathris. Amira spends most of her free time wandering the grounds of the capital compound, though there's precious little time for even that anymore. But it doesn't matter.
Their eyes meet, and Kathris seems to be asking a question. Amira ignores it, because it comforts her to know that Kathris usually has the answers. Even during amira's turn as Primary, she usually defers to the tall, commanding woman.
Undeserving. That is how Amira has always felt in Kathris' presence - Kathris, who brought the Seventeen Factions together under a single rule and a single law; Kathris, who had opened up a new golden age of learning and exploration; Kathris, who had made the planet Shakti a united world for the first time in its history.
Amira has always felt intimidated by Kathris' beauty - felt herself so small, so frivolous. What could Kathris possibly want with her anyway? What could she, Amira, ever give her?
Only this, she thinks, only this. Pleasure, joy, ecstasy; and for herself, when Kathris reaches bân and her psychic defenses fall away, a fleeting glimpse into that beautiful mind. She runs a forefinger playfully down the front of Kathris' blouse, where an invisible seam splits under her touch. The blouse falls to the floor like a flower melting.