" So! How was your first day here, Lesa?"
She was sunk in on herself, sitting across from Nova, who was blatantly pouting.
" Ah, well..." She looked over to Neda, probably for guidance. " ... Everyone's... nice... it's weird..."
" They take after Masterson," Nova huffed.
" What happened to my cute nickname?"
" You planning a family lunch get-together is what happened."
" L-lyena-Nova! Don't be so rude... William is trying his best-"
" It's fine, Kirie! We're having a good time. I'm glad I managed to get everyone together."
" I'm not."
" Pouting because you want me all to yourself?"
He feigned obliviousness to how everyone else at the table turned red, because it was well worth it to cause Nova to sputter with embarrassment.
" ... That's not why."
Lesa stood abruptly.
" L-lyena, if you want me to go, I-I can..."
He looked as though he wanted to tell her to, but was withholding from it because of William's presence.
" Oh, please. Then we'd have to throw Kirie out as well. Be at ease, Lesa."
Her eyes flicked back and forth between them, visibly nervous.
" Lyeha-Lesa, if the Commodore General says to be at ease, you can depend on him," Neda assured.
" Right," she said, bowing her head. " ... I apologize, Commodore General."
" No need to be so formal!"
" Please, Wille, let my little sister practice proper manners."
" And what would you know about proper manners?"
" Plenty more than you," Nova said, brandishing his fork at him. " You go out of your way to menace others with your disrespectful demeanor."
" What's so wrong with being nice? You should try being nice. Kirie, wouldn't you love it if Nova was about ten percent nicer?"
Kirie jumped in her seat, and blushed, caught off-guard.
" I- I don't think I have any room to say, I mean, certainly, Lyena-Nova can be a bit standoffish, at times, but it's in accordance with his rank, so..."
She chided him back, and then laughed to herself, realizing how she sounded.
" Honestly, I'm relieved that you haven't changed so much, even though you've gotten so far high up in the ranks," she said.
" I mean, it's all just made-up words," he said. " It's just like, oh, you're smart and you won a billion super easy battles, we're going to give you a cool cape and a big ship now."
" You know, if I spoke about the empire like that, I'd be disowned within a week," Nova commented, nibbling on his lunch as he watched them with a degree of reticence.
" Good thing you're here and not there then," William replied. He turned to Lesa. " You! You can speak poorly of whoever you like here. We spent all last night discussing how to kill Diurn without getting into legal trouble, you know."
She jumped in her seat and smiled gamely.
" I... I... I don't know if I should speak like that... In front of Brother, and Cadet Neda..."
" It's fine, Lesa. Just indulge him," Nova said with a sigh. " I give up. I'm going to end up creating an empire without any regard for formalities. Lyeha, you can be a Queen Mother who doesn't mind any common sense."
She sort of froze, at that.
" Ah, Brother... About that... I..." She seemed to have something caught in her throat; she paused and didn't speak for a moment. Then she bowed her head. " I would like... to ask... if you would support me... I... I. I don't want to be Queen Mother."
There was a silence.
William looked over to Nova; he looked very put out, for lack of a better phrase.
" It's a bad idea," he stated coldly.
" I know," Lesa replied.
" Then why pursue it?"
She shifted in her seat and fidgeted.
" I think I... would rather die. I had a lot of time to think about it, when I was alone. It was the only thing on my mind. The fear. I don't... I don't want that for myself..." She explained haltingly, as though she was ready to stop speaking at any moment. " I hate Irdat! She's such a cruel, cold person! I could never be like her! I don't ever want to be... like that..."
William tried to read Nova's expression, but he was drawing a blank. Kirie and Neda both seemed very taken aback.
Nova straightened up in his chair.
" Article 502f(c) of the Sapient Species Rights Bill as issued in the DASS-Starka Empire peace treaty specifically excludes female members of the royal family and all others who may potentially be in line to become Queen Mother. That means you'll have to follow the tradition of facing Uncle in a duel. He'll kill you. In either outcome of this scenario, the one child you already have will be cut off from the line of succession. Furthermore, you're the only one of my siblings currently allied with me on adapting to DASS progressivism, and I would prefer not to have to-"
He was cut off by Lesa standing from the table, and running from the room.
" Ah, wait-"
William jumped up and hurriedly went after her, following her into the hallway.
She started crying.
" I thought... I thought that Lyena would understand... He's the only one who can sponsor me to fight... I don't care if I die..."
... It wasn't something William readily understood, and the one thing he had learned about Starka gender politics was that they were hopelessly beyond his comprehension.
" I could-"
" This can't be meddled with... It's a family matter," she explained, wiping her face on her sleeves as she cried. " I... I have to have one of my brothers say I can... I thought Nova would say I can... None of the others care or understand, but I thought since he's so close with DASS people now, that he'd understand..."
" He's awfully selfish, though," William soothed. " He's worried, but he doesn't know how to show it, is all. He's afraid of losing an ally."
He didn't quite know what to do, so he hugged her.
" I'm not just... I'm not just a bargaining chip... I want to be myself..."
" I know. It's alright."
" I feel stupid! I've barely been here two days, and I'm making myself look like an idiot..."
" No, you're not, you're fine."
" This was the last shred of hope I had for it..."
" It'll be okay, I'll talk to him about it later."
" Will you?"
" I will. I think you just surprised him a little, is all."
Lesa cried on his shoulder a little bit longer.