"Donlan, she's sixteen. You're more than twice her age." Tall men, lean men, walking along the battlements of a sturdy stone tower girt in steel. The glower of the setting sun brought forth the gleam of metal; each man was heavily-armed with both rifle and side-arm, and the taller one with a wavy-bladed kris sword. The other, leaner and lighter, bore a starkly-simple broadsword with a wolf-head pommel. "We both know this has been buildin' ever since what happened with Kat." Donlan's words were subdued. The mentioned Kat had been Yekaterina Liski, a woman that had come to the kingdom of New Sonora aboard the Russian warship, Pyotr Velikiy. Kat had been among the few Russian sailors to survive the Battle of Tucson, and her marriage to Donlan Dexter Faolán Cross had been a brief and violent union. Her fondness for drink had led to increasingly-erratic behavior, and it had all come to a head the night Kat had attempted to assassinate Crown Princess Afshideh. Cross was the girl's music and weapons instructor, and Kat's jealousy was not without some due cause. Donlan Cross had been nineteen on the eve of the Red War, the nuclear conflict that had given rise to New Sonora. He was a Syndrome Lord—one of the most powerful of metanormals. As a result, his aging process had ceased at the age of twenty-five. Likewise, the man at his side had ceased to age; King Julian Würger appeared to be in his early thirties, though he was in truth over fifty. Neither man showed a single line of age or silver hair. But a cessure in aging did not erase a gap spanning a generation. "She's too young for this. I cannot in good conscience give you leave to court my daughter." Julian paused, turning to face the other man. The glint in his golden eyes was resolute. "If she's old enough to hold High Court, how can she not be old enough to choose a consort? How can you consider her a stateswoman yet still a child, Julian? In two years, she will reach her majority—" "And if you feel the same about one another in two years, we will revisit this. Until then, my answer is no. I have spoken." Julian reached a half-gloved hand out to rest on Donlan's shoulder. "Let this not come between us, however. I am her father, but also your sworn brother. I am not saying I will remain forever opposed. Let me have this, Donlan. Let me have two more years to consider myself father to girl rather than to woman grown." "He's havin' none of it, I'm afraid." Hours had elapsed, and the red sun was now long abed below the horizon. Donlan Cross was within one of the music rooms within the Stahlzitadelle, the royal palace whose battlements he had walked with the King. Across from him sat a young woman with a wild riot of dark-red curls and skin the color of toffee. Her eyes, much like those of her father, were a feral amber. "He doesn't need to. I have spent my life preparing to be a Queen. And a Queen chooses a consort for the benefit of her people as much as her own desires. He says that he has spoken? I have spoken. Metanormals do not age as humans do. And we are Syndrome Lords, both of us. It's not merely a matter of wanting you to be my first and only, Donlan." Tall and slim, Afshideh rose and stepped around the rough-hewn mesquite table. "What could be stronger than a union between House Steel Shrike and House Iron Wolf?" "I won't go against him, lass. We're brothers on so many levels. We've got to follow your father's wishes. You might come to fancy someone your own—" "Men my own age are not men!" Afshideh flared. Metanormal fangs glinted as she bared her teeth in frustration. "All posturing and immaturity with no concept of societal responsibility, when I have been primed and groomed and trained for dominion. Karth Parello? Suo Ming-húa? What in all the hells imaginable can little boys like that offer me other than drama and a stiff cock? I want you. I need you. And no one—not my mother, not my father, no one—will gainsay me." "But I will." Donlan stood and cupped the Crown Princess' cheeks between his palms. His lips brushed her brow. "Wait for me. In two summers, let the Wolf and the Shrike be one."