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The third week, she stopped braiding her hair.

Breath-light touch on her forehead, on her cheek, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. Your father loved my hair, Xhalax whispered, with a wavering smile. After her mother left, Aeryn raised a hand to her own temple and slid two fingers down one cool, smooth lock. Her father had thought her mother's hair was beautiful. Someday, she realized for the first time, someone would think that she was beautiful too.

You're a savage, Mekarta Traska said with naked dislike, and Aeryn grinned back at the crecheminder in cocky exaltation, knowing her teeth would flash white against her camoflauge-daubed cheeks. Mekarta had three of the boys hold Aeryn down while she shaved off Aeryn's hair; it was matted with blood and sweat and nameless Leviathan fluids, matted far too badly to comb, or so Mekarta would claim. It didn't matter: Aeryn had outwitted the smartest, outfought the strongest, outrun the fastest, done it, made it, made it. Pilot training. And Mekarta--Mekarta was a caretaker. She was twenty-seven and would never leave the creche, and Aeryn was fifteen and would never go back.

Seyvar Kaith rubbed his cheek against her stubbled head. You're scratching me, he complained, but she could hear the laughter in his voice. Isn't that supposed to be your line? She pressed a smiling kiss to his throat, and another, and another, until she reached his smooth and beardless face.

Pleisar Regiment, best and brightest, and she the youngest but not the least of them. Everybody knew Aeryn Sun was going somewhere. When she first braided her hair, it was a convenience, a style stolen from some client on a whim: similar enough to Captain Crais' rattail to attract the same automatic respect, different enough to be distinctive. She didn't learn it had become more than that till a quarter-cycle later. They were all drinking after a training session, feet up on tables and jackets pulled loose and heads tilted back against the flesh-warm Leviathan walls. All the Prowler wannabes are imitating you, eh? Seyvar said, a tease with teeth in it: she'd blown him up in sim again, ten microts into the exercise this time. She never did get the hang of breaking relationships off right.

She jerked upright when she realized he meant it. Elneth Vode tugged at the braid and dodged her irritated slap with a grin. What, he said, you didn't know?

She hadn't. She could hardly go back on it then. It had become the sign of Ikarian Company, the single braid, the mark of honor, the emblem of glory, and she daydreamed sometimes of how they'd write it up in the histories: the strategies and the battles and Aeryn Sun's braid, as famous a marker as Fekkar's Twilith clan scars or Durka's glass eye.

Aeryn Sun was going somewhere. Somewhere wasn't supposed to be exile, the Uncharted Territories, and the company of madmen, criminals, and fools. She wasn't supposed to end up like this, alone and desperate and hunted down like vermin; her honors forgotten, her name accursed, her strength a trap that wouldn't let her die.

You, the Hynerian spat, what are you? I'll regain my throne, but you, you're nothing. She tried to tell herself it didn't sting. What did she care for the Hynerian's opinion? He was a cowardly airbag; the Luxan was a brute, the Delvian a murderer, the human a mewling babe.

Her companions. Until they got home. Until she--got wherever. Wherever there was to go.

I'll regain my throne, Rygel said, but you-- That was the third week.

The third week, she stopped braiding her hair.