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"Are you...okay?"

Dahlen does not want to admit it, but the voice startles him. Ever since he set course for Tinoppa, the girl hasn't spoken once. He is fine with that. When she speaks, it is to say annoying, naive things. And it only makes Dahlen resent her further.

This girl is the Princess of Kalu - no, the Empress. But she is small, and uncertain, and weak, and foolish. He is to protect her. That is his mission. By now, he is starting to think that the greatest danger she faces is her own self.

"Are you okay?" the girl asks again, more impatiently this time.

He can't get away with ignoring her. Not looking at her, he says, "What do you mean?"

"You know what." The girl breathes in sharply. "Your hand. Does it hurt?"

"I told you, Princess, that my life is not your concern."

"And I told you I don't believe that," the girl says, glaring at him. She is small, but there is a ferocity in her mismatched eyes that takes Dahlen aback - slightly. At these moments - like when she shoved the scrambler down the sergeant's throat - he can almost bring himself to believe in her. Almost.

"You were hurt because of me," the girl goes on, stubborn. "Of course I feel responsible."

So naive. It makes Dahlen...not upset. Such emotions are beyond his reach now. But it makes something stir inside him, and this bothers him more than he can say. He learned to put aside all his foolish, petty emotions in a way this girl never did, and dedicate his whole self to Vodhan's service.

And not only emotions did he put aside, but pain. Yes, there is pain throbbing in his hand, as the broken bones slowly, agonizingly knit together. There was the sharp, breath-taking pain of the moment when the droid snapped the bones. But he does not care. He has experienced far greater. In the course of his training, he had many more bones broken. He had been cut with knives. Forced to drink poisons. All to toughen him, of course, to harden the shell of his body, to cut away all that was weak and unnecessary, leaving behind only a weapon to carry out Vodhan's will.

What are two broken fingers compared to that? This girl is a fool to worry.

"I will not deny it was your foolishness that landed us in this situation," Dahlen says. The girl flinches, and that faint feeling stirs inside him, annoying him. "But it has already happened."

The girl says. "Can't you at least say if it hurts? Or was the sergeant right and you don't feel pain?"

Her ignorance irritates him. She really is just a sheltered rose, kept hidden away in the hothouse of Nau Fruma for all of her life. She knows nothing.

"Even if it hurts, what can you do about it?"

The girl looks taken aback, as though she hadn't considered what she'd do. Of course. Dahlen's contempt for her grows.

But the girl rallies. "There might be pain medications - "

"Don't bother," Dahlen says. Then adds, because he is annoyed with her, "Were you intending to feed them to me? Like I am an invalid? Try not to overreact, Princess."

The girl's face flushes. She turns around and stomps away from him, and the flowers and leaves of the bridge turn to follow her. Dahlen is not interested in where she's going, what she wants. She is here with him, and he will protect her, and he will help her carry out her revenge. Those are the facts of his mission, and Dahlen has never failed a mission before.

It's easy not to fail, once you give up...everything. Everything that restrains and holds you back. Emotions. Memories.

That is why Dahlen doubts the girl will ever achieve her revenge. But he doesn't need her to. If she cannot bring herself to kill Seotra, then he will gladly do it himself. Of course, he must mislead her to do so. He feels no guilt about it, even though Vodhan does not look kindly upon liars. But Vodhan must understand Dahlen's reasons.

Perhaps the most irritating thing about this girl is how much of himself he sees in her. She loathes the same man. The same man took away her family. But the difference is that Dahlen has what it takes to get his revenge and she does not. He remembers her pounding on the wall, the horror that lanced through him then.

He would have been prepared to handle whatever level of interrogation the droid decided to use. He would have prayed to Vodhan and ignored the useless pain on the useless shell of his body. But the girl had to ruin it all. Yes, they had escaped, but - but he would have figured out a way, gotten them out of it, without her. Without her risking her life.

"You cannot be so soft in the future," he says. Why he tries to give her advice, he has no idea. She shows a remarkable lack of inclination for listening.

Just like his sister...and that is enough. Memories are useless. As useless as this pain in his hand.

"You can't just act based on your emotions," he continues, more insistent. "Remember who you are, remember what your position is. Stop and carefully think. Evaluate the situation."

"And let you get hurt?" The girl's voice is bitter.

"Princess, you do not even know me. I should not mean a thing to you."

"Maybe you don't," the girl snaps. "But if you're to protect me, you can't risk your life so easily, either."

"I wouldn't have died."

"How was I supposed to know that?"

Dahlen closes his eyes. He is tired of this argument, and he knows that they will go nowhere. It's becoming harder to ignore the throbbing in his hand. He leans back against the wall, and the vines creep toward him, trying to comfort him.

The girl turns toward him, looking at him with the strangest expression on her face. It bothers Dahlen that he can't read it. There's something soft in her eyes, something sad, something pained.

"I'm not going to hide again," she finally says. "I'm not going to run away. I'm done with that. Next time, I'm going to help you if you need it."

"I won't need help - " Dahlen begins, but to his surprise the girl speaks over him.

"I don't care what you want. I'm going to help. I won't stand back anymore." Her entire body is trembling. With a pang, Dahlen realizes he understands perfectly how she feels: powerless, desperate to do something, anything, to rectify her mistakes. Like he felt after his family's deaths, and...more unnecessary thoughts.

He tilts his head back, examining her. She is a fool. She has not magically become a different person. He still does not believe in her. He still will not hesitate to take his revenge even if she hesitates.

But...he can see, like a picture blurred at the edges, the kind of Empress she might be someday. Maybe she will not be strong. That will spell disaster for the galaxy, of course, because the Empress of Kalu has to be strong when she has so many enemies. But she will be kind. She will be honorable.

These things do not matter. Dahlen tells himself this, but for some reason he cannot tear his eyes away from Rhiannon Ta'an.

"Get some rest," Rhee says. "I'll check our course." She turns and stomps away.

Who is she to order him around on his own ship? But to his dismay, his annoyance is tinged with a touch of...what is this? The same kind of exasperation his sister could once inspire in him....

Unnecessary, he tells himself, cradling his broken hand carefully. Then, taking in a breath, he presses down on his broken index finger. He savors in the jolt of pain that travels through his entire body. It wipes his mind clear. Frees him from all detritus.

Vodhan is watching. Always watching. That is his comfort, the only comfort he should take. All that he deserves. Even so, his eyes drift shut.

Rhee is not his Empress. But she commands him anyway. And he doesn't resent it nearly as much as he should.