It took another twenty minutes to extract myself from the market after my chat with Patricia. My thigh throbbed like fire had replaced my bones, slowly burning me from the inside out.
When a little boy ran up to give me a farewell hug, I wasn’t fast enough to dodge, and he clamped his little arms around my bad thigh and gave me a squeeze. Tears sprang to my eyes and I clenched my jaw hard enough that my teeth ached.
He beamed up at me, and I somehow summoned a smile. I ruffled his hair, then he darted away with a wave, unaware of just how much pain he had caused. After he disappeared from view, I hissed out a breath.
“Are you okay?” Valentin asked. I realized that my hand had gone white-knuckled around his arm and I consciously loosened my grip.
“Give me a second,” I said, “but try anything right now and I’ll kill you out of spite.”
Valentin chuckled. “I’ve seen you shoot. I’m not that stupid.”
“You need to visit medical,” Ari said.
“I will as soon as I have time,” I promised. An auto-doc could patch me up in a few hours, but I had to have a few hours where I could afford to stay put in medical.
Ari leveled her hard stare at me. “See that you do, or I’ll rat you out to Stella.”
My horrified expression was only half-feigned. “Let’s not be hasty, now,” I said with a placating wave. Ari’s wife ran medical. Most of the time Stella Mueller was the nicest lady you’d ever meet. But she ran medical like she had a doctorate in dictatorship. She wasn’t afraid to restrain unruly patients until they healed—Queens included. If Stella caught wind of how badly I was injured, she’d hunt me down.
Ari’s smile had a slightly evil edge to it and Malcolm laughed. I glared at both of them, but I had to suppress the smile that threatened to break through. “With friends like you, I hardly need enemies,” I sniffed.
“We prefer you alive, your majesty,” Malcolm said, “because stars know we don’t want your job.” He shuddered in mock horror and Ari nodded in agreement. It was easier to not have any coup attempts when no one wanted the job in the first place.
Before I could change the subject to something safer, Valentin’s stomach growled. It was a little early for dinner, but someone would be in the soldiers’ mess anyway.
“Come on,” I said. “I need to eat, too.” It would give me a chance to sit and rest my leg before I went to see what was going on with Lily and her secret pregnancy. I dropped Valentin’s arm and led the way to the mess hall.
“Hey, Eddie, how’s it going?” I asked as we stepped up to the counter in the mess hall.
Eddie Tarlowski looked up with a grin. He was twenty-five, with shaggy blond hair and a forgettable face. He had been one of the best thieves in the universe until he’d gotten caught by the Quint Confederacy and conscripted. He’d escaped, but not before he lost an arm and a leg in some nameless skirmish with the Kos Empire in deep space.
Two years ago, he’d shown up in Arx with two mechanical limbs and a chip on his shoulder the size of Andromeda. He’d spent most of his first six months peeling potatoes as punishment for everything from stealing to trying to incite a riot.
I’d begun to wonder if he was ever going to let go of his anger.
Then slowly, so slowly, he’d warmed up to the chef and starting showing up in the kitchen without it being a punishment. Now, he was the head chef—though, much like Zita, he hadn’t been able to flex his surprisingly good culinary muscles in months.
“Long time no see, boss,” he said. “You bring me any of that steak I asked for?”
“I’m afraid not,” I said with true regret. I hadn’t had real meat in nearly a year. “What’s on the dinner menu?”
“You’re in for a treat tonight,” Eddie said. “I’ve made my famous risotto di proteine.”
I laughed. “At least it sounds delicious. I need two servings, one for me and one for Tino here,” I said, jerking a thumb at Valentin. “He’s not in the system yet, so you can deduct his from my rations.”
“Sure thing, boss,” Eddie said. He pulled out two bowls with his gray mechanical arm. These days, Eddie used the arm so naturally that, if you couldn’t see the color, you wouldn’t know it was mechanical. But we’d lost a lot of dishes before he’d calibrated the strength correctly.
Eddie added two ladlefuls of protein mush to each bowl. It had all of the nutrients required to keep you alive, which was the nicest thing you could say about it. He pulled out a tray and set the bowls on it, then sliced an apple in half and put a half next to each bowl. “Bon appétit,” he said with a flourish.
“Thanks, Eddie,” I said.
I reached for the tray, but Valentin beat me to it. I waited to see if he would attempt to bash me over the head with it, but he just paused then tilted his head towards the tables.
I stopped to add two glasses of water to the tray, then led Valentin to a table in sight of the door. I’d left Ari and Malcolm outside so they didn’t have to watch us eat up close. Despite their protests that it was fine, I knew how hard it was to watch other people eat when you were hungry.
The mess hall was nearly empty. In another hour or two it would be packed, but for now we had the place to ourselves. I sat down with a grateful groan.
Valentin put the tray on the table and sat across from me. “You really should go to medical,” he said quietly.
“After I send you home, I will,” I said. I met his eyes. “Should I be evacuating my civilians?” I asked frankly.
Valentin smiled and my heart kicked. The man was too damn handsome for his own good—or mine, for that matter.
“Your com system is terrible,” he said. “I can’t seem to link through it, and I’ve sent messages, but I haven’t received any responses. I ordered my advisors to negotiate with you.”
His face blanked and I caught a glimpse of steely determination before it was once again hidden by a careless grin. “They better.”
I pulled my bowl towards me. Protein mush had a texture somewhere between oatmeal, risotto, and engine grease. The taste was not much better. Valentin eyed his bowl as if he expected it to attack.
“Eat up,” I said. “It’s not delicious, but it’s not poisonous, either.”
“I’m familiar with PRiMeR,” he said, using the official acronym for Protein Rich Meal Replacement. “I just hoped to never see it again.”
That surprised me. PRiMeR was far, far down the list of possible meal replacements. It was one of the cheapest you could buy. Someone as rich as the Emperor should never have had a reason to dip below the speciality MREs produced for the elite classes.
It was on the tip of my tongue to ask him about it, to peel back the layers to find the real Valentin Kos, but I swallowed the question. I already liked him too much. If it turned out he really was as human as the rest of us, it would be much harder to do what I needed to do in order to save my people.
We finished our meal in silence. I needed distance from Valentin and I needed to talk to Lily Dovers about her pregnancy. She was an apprentice shipwright, which meant she was most likely out in the hangar bay working on a ship. Valentin did not need to see our main hangar, so I had to stash him in a cell for a while.
This would be fun.
Part 2 will be posted later this week. :)