“You know that's illegal.” Raven pitched his voice to cold authority.

His young aunt, Kestrel, didn't even bother to look up.

“Slipped my mind,” she replied to Raven, her tone absent, elsewhere. “I'll be sure to stop immediately.” She hunched in front of a flickering two-dimensional screen. The delicate wires of her custom control headset were almost hidden by her hat, not that anyone in the palace could do anything to her if they caught her. She and the queen had an understanding, and no one else had authority to prosecute her for her crimes.

Raven laughed as his aunt's screen froze on an image of two humans in historical garb, holding pre-Merge pistols.

“What are you sensing?” Raven asked her.

“It's just called 'watching' when it's only two-D with no stim,” Kestrel replied. “Pre-Merge television. I've been on a kick. How's your English? I'll put it on the speakers for you.”

Raven's English was decent. Unbeknownst to his mother, Raven spoke three human tongues. He didn't feel like sitting still just now, though—didn't want to be entertained.

Politely declining his aunt's invitation, he turned to leave Kestrel's “lab”—a room full of complex electronics in various states of repair.

“You're angry,” Kestrel said as Raven reached the door. When he didn't respond, she went on, “You always crack bitter jokes about the rules when you're angry. What did my sister do this time?”

Raven felt his shoulders sag, in something between relief and exhaustion. Instead of leaving, he shut the “lab” door and returned to stretch out in one of Kestrel's swiveling, cushioned chairs. His aunt's screen was blanked now, and she'd turned to give him her full attention. Her bright, black eyes observed him coolly from her slate-grey face. Kestrel almost never showed emotion.

Raven far preferred this to his mother's falseness.

“She dismissed my bodyguard,” he said. “Out from under me, with no warning.”

Kestrel raised an eyebrow. “Bearthew? Is this a survival test of some kind?”

Raven spread his hands and shook his head. “That's the best case scenario,” he answered. “She might just want me dead.”

Kestrel pulled up a blank, simple-looking program in the air between her own eyes and Raven's. She stared at it for a moment. A few words appeared in a tiny font, backwards to Raven's perspective, and were gone before he could read them as the program closed once more.

“I've made a note to look into it,” his aunt told him.

That was unsettling. “I thought you'd reassure me that my own mother doesn't want me dead.”

“I don't like the rumors lately.” Kestrel frowned. “Between the bay pirates and the rebel camps in Manhattan's ruins, anti-human sentiment is getting bad,” she said. “The Trads fear you, and the Rennies are scrambling to reassure everyone that their views are nothing like yours.”

None of that was news. Raven had trouble imagining even his mother wanting him dead over it. Before he could say as much out loud, Kestrel went on.

“Yesterday, I went out to do maintenance on my routers, and sissy dearest didn't realize I was on the roof,” Raven's aunt confessed. “I heard part of a meeting with the Duke about strife between the nine families, and I could have sworn I heard her say she thought someone was considering a coup.”
Kestrel sounded bemused, which was unusually emotive for her.

A nervous laugh escaped Raven. “That's far-fetched, isn't it? The nine families have shared power for millennia. The rotating monarchy is a stable system.”

Kestrel shrugged. “What's really stable, post-Merge?” she asked. “Half the elves and most of the dragons alive today remember a world with different maps, easier magic, portals to other realms, and no such thing as electronics. My sister is the first high queen to be born since the Event. There's no way our culture is done recovering from the shock of the change.”

She had a point, but . . . “That still seems extreme, even for the most rabid fringe-Trads.”

Kestrel nodded and sighed. “I hope you're right.”

“Well, whether I am or not,” Raven conceded, “it sounds like a shithole of a time to be without a bodyguard.”

“I don't trust them,” Kestrel said.

“Yes, well, people don't try to kill you as often as they do me,” Raven replied. “I've more than once had a use for a second pair of eyes to watch my back.”

Kestrel pulled up another program, a simple game with colored balls. Playing it idly in the projected hologram that hung in the air between herself and Raven, she shrugged again. “Who in the Void can you hire?” she asked. “You can't trust anyone in Fellveil right now, with Rowan acting this way. In the other eight states, well, which families are loyal to the oligarchy, and which have gone radical? And how will you know who's a Trad sympathizer and already wants you dead?”

She made better points than Raven liked to admit.

“I'll figure something out.” He found that he'd run out of patience for the topic. “Tell me more about your human show there. Judging by the pistol-styles that's what? One century pre-Merge? Two?”

Perhaps he was in the mood to be entertained after all.