I spent five minutes trying to persuade Valentin to enter the cell under his own power before Ari decided she’d had enough. She pulled her blaster, stunned him, then caught his body before he hit the ground.
She stepped into the cell and dumped him on the cot. “You agreed to cooperate. If you don’t want to get stunned, listen to Queen Rani,” she said.
Valentin glared furiously at her before switching his glare to me. I shrugged half-heartedly. Ari wasn’t wrong, and I wasn’t going to publicly rebuke her for doing her job. “I did ask you several times,” I said neutrally.
His glare did not lessen. Unfortunately, he was going to be even more pissed when he realized this was a Faraday isolation cell and he wouldn’t be able to send any more messages out.
The cell had a double lock. The manual lock could be opened by anyone on this side, but I keyed the digital lock to my handprint and face scan. I didn’t need any of my citizens catching wind of Valentin’s presence and deciding to do a little bounty hunting of their own.
“Ari, I want a pair of guards posted here 24/7. Only your most trusted soldiers.”
She nodded and turned to Malcolm. “Can you take the first watch until I round up some more people?” she asked.
“Of course,” he said.
“I’m going to talk to Lily Dovers in the main hangar,” I said. “I’ll be online, so let me know if anything comes up.” I turned back to Valentin. “I’ll be back later to check on you. Give my soldiers any trouble and your stay will become a lot more unpleasant.”
Confident that Ari and Malcolm had Valentin under control, I left for the hangar. On my way, I connected to the net and the familiar hum of information in the back of my mind felt like reconnecting with a long lost friend.
I checked the news as I walked but nothing coming out of the Kos Empire indicated any kind of coup had happened. Or that there was any unrest at all. Had Valentin duped me into thinking his advisors were the ones behind his decisions while he’d been pulling the strings all along?
I pondered that disturbing thought until I stepped into the main hangar bay. A huge open room with a segmented roof that could open in whole or in part, the hangar bay was the largest indoor space in Arx.
And thanks to its high roof and proximity to the surface, it was always cold. I shivered as I forged deeper into the sea of ships. This hangar and the secondary hangar on the other side of the base held twenty-five percent of the Rogue Coalition’s offensive capability.
I followed loud cursing to a young man on a ladder peering up into the belly of a small fighter. His hands were smudged with grease and he held a wrench like he’d like to bash it against the ship. “Excuse me,” I said, “do you know where Lily Dovers is?”
He started, glanced at me, looked again, and then froze. “Errr…”
“Lily Dovers,” I said again. “About your age, long black hair, works as an apprentice.”
He blinked, then his expression cleared. “Lily is working on the transport shuttle today,” he said. He pointed deeper into the hangar. “Want me to show you?”
I nodded and he scurried down from his ladder. He snuck glances at me when he thought I wasn’t looking. He was head and shoulders taller than me and still had the lankiness of his late teens clinging to his frame. He couldn’t be more than eighteen or nineteen.
“You’re Queen Samara,” he said at last.
“Yep,” I agreed.
He stopped and squared his body to me. “Is Lily in trouble?” he asked. His body language was hostile, but he’d put himself in front of me, presumably between me and Lily. Ten creds said I’d just found the baby daddy.
I let my expression ice over and the kid took a step back before his spine stiffened and he held his ground. “And if she is?” I asked.
“I will take her punishment,” he said immediately.
“You don’t know what you’re offering.”
He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, I’ll take her place. Just leave her alone.”
“What’s your name, kid?” I asked.
He bristled at the label but answered. “I’m Gareth Holt.”
“Lily’s not in trouble,” I said quietly. “I’m assuming you two are together?”
Color washed over his pale cheeks but he held my gaze as he nodded.
“Did you force her?”
“What? No! I would never!” he said with genuine shock.
“I hope that you’re telling the truth,” I said. “Take me to Lily but don’t let her see you. If you do, you won’t like the consequences. Same if you link her.”
He nodded and continued deeper into the hangar. After a couple minutes, he stopped. “The transport shuttle is two down. Lily will be inside. I will wait here.”
I continued to the transport. The main ramp was lowered and I heard noise from inside. “Lily?” I called as I climbed the ramp.
“Just a second!” she called back, her voice muffled.
I moved to the front of the ship and found Lily with her upper body wedged under the main console of the ship’s bridge. After another minute, she wiggled her way out. She wore a loose mechanic’s coverall that completely hid her willowy shape. Her long black hair was piled in a bun on top of her head.
She stood and smiled at me, then seemed to remember she had something to hide. Her expression turned wary. Lily Dovers would be terrible at cards.
“Hey, Lily,” I said, “how are you?”
Her face crumpled and her eyes filled with tears. “Please don’t blame Gareth,” she said in a rush. “It was all my idea. It’s my fault. I thought we’d be safe, but I must’ve miscalculated.”
I pulled her into my arms. She buried her head on my shoulder and I patted her back.
“I’m not mad at you, and no one is in trouble.” Yet. “Do you want to keep it?”
She curled a hand over her lower belly and nodded against my shoulder.
“Ok, I’m assuming Gareth is the father?”
She nodded again.
“Lily, I need you to look me in the eye and be completely honest. Did he force you?”
She reared back, a horrified expression on her face. She shook her head. “No! Not at all. If anything, I seduced him. And it took weeks,” she said tartly.
“Then why won’t you tell your father?” I asked.
“He doesn’t approve of Gareth. Thinks I can do better,” she said with an eye roll. “He’ll be furious.”
“Tell him, or I will,” I said. “You need the extra rations and Zita can’t keep slipping you bread on the sly. If you’re worried about his reaction, I can be there when you tell him.”
She mulled the offer over then shook her head. “I will do it,” she said, “then I’m going to marry Gareth—he already asked me.” A smile broke over her face. “I’m going to marry Gareth,” she said with soft wonder.
Certain that nothing nefarious was going on, I called Gareth over. After watching them together, I was even more confident that they were happy together. I made the two lovebirds promise that they would come to me if any trouble came up with Lily’s father, then left them to figure out their future.
On my way out of the hangar, I checked my messages. And there, right on top, was a response from the Kos Empire. I read it twice, then I went to find Valentin.
EDIT: I updated the first four paragraphs based on some stellar beta feedback.