I waved Malcolm and the other soldier away from Valentin’s cell. This wasn’t a conversation I wanted overheard. Once they were far enough away that even with augments they couldn’t hear us, I faced Valentin.
I pressed my fingers to the cool wall separating us. This close, I could see the fine wires running through the clear thermoplastic. After a moment, I said, “Your advisors offered me the ten million credits I asked for.”
His expression turned guarded. “Did they?”
“Yes. Ten million credits—enough to feed my people for years,” I said. Emotion made my voice huskier than I’d intended. I paused and took a steadying breath before I continued, “All I have to do is kill you.”
It was the highest paying job I’d ever been offered. The easiest, too, considering Valentin was locked in a cell right in front of me.
“Are you going to accept?”
I stared at him for so long that he started pacing. I tried to see it as just another job, one death for thousands of lives saved. But I couldn’t. This one would be personal and the choice, either way, would haunt me.
Some people would argue I had no soul, that I’d forfeited it the first day I accepted a kill contract. But while my soul might be warped or missing, I still had a personal code of honor and a set of morals that, while not entirely lawful, were mine nonetheless.
And it had been a very long time since I’d killed someone under contract that I later regretted. That stain would never wash away, but it had forced me to do my research meticulously and to ensure each target would get exactly what I thought they deserved. If I had doubts, I walked away.
“I don’t know,” I said at last. “I’d rather not.”
He stopped pacing and turned towards me. He stepped close and pressed his hand against the other side of the wall from mine. “You could let me go,” he said. He was close enough that I could see the dark flecks in his gray eyes. He continued, “I’ll send you supplies, no strings attached.”
I sighed. “You don’t even know if you have an Empire to return to. Maybe your brother decided to take over while you were gone. Why else would they ask me to kill you?”
Valentin’s expression changed again and I caught a glimpse of the cunning wolf he tried so hard to hide. “If Nikolas truly has tried a coup, I have enough loyal troops to take back the crown. I am Emperor by right of law and lineage.”
“And your older brother isn’t?”
“My older half-brother,” he said succinctly.
The ramifications of that statement took a few seconds to sink in, but when they did, my eyes widened. With three little words, he’d alleged his older brother was a bastard in the original sense. “You have proof?”
“After Father changed the line of succession, I had suspicions. I searched Father’s old files and found enough vague references to confront Mother. She confessed. A DNA test would prove it.”
He shrugged and continued, “Father claimed Nikolas because he truly loved Mother and didn’t want to see her shamed, but on his deathbed, Father must’ve decided he wouldn’t put an illegitimate son on the throne. I haven’t announced it because I love my mother and stars know Father was no saint.”
“Does anyone else know? Does Nikolas?”
“Mother told Nikolas after Father’s death. She thought it would help him understand Father’s decision. Nikolas did not take it well,” Valentin said, his voice dry.
If you spent your whole life thinking you were the Emperor’s son, destined to be the next Emperor, and then it turned out you were secretly illegitimate, I could see how that would be a tough blow. No wonder Nikolas wanted Valentin dead.
Valentin sighed and seemed to come to a decision. “I’ve spent eleven months dodging assassins and attempting to keep a fractured Empire functioning while trying to ferret out who is loyal and who is not. I was following up on a lead on one of my top-level advisors when I ran into Commander Adams.”
If Valentin had been dodging paid hitmen, then the fact that he wasn’t dead was a testament to both his skill and luck. Elite assassins very rarely failed and unless his advisors were total morons, they’d hire only the best.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t paying attention to what was happening here,” he said. “I knew my advisors were feeding me false information, but it never occurred to me that they would lie about the Rogue Coalition. Why would they? Maybe they hoped you’d take me out for them.”
So he’d known his advisors were lying to him. “You knew you were losing the war?”
He grimaced guiltily. “Yes, but at the time I didn’t know where you fit into the puzzle. If you were actually sent by one of my advisors and just playing at ransoming me, telling you what I knew would prove I knew the advisors were traitors. I have loyal people that I needed to protect.”
“You let me send off a ransom note without a peep about any of this,” I said slowly, “because you wanted to see how they would respond.”
He nodded. “I would like to see the response itself, assuming you don’t end up killing me.”
Two paths opened up before me. Throw in with the charming lion masquerading as a sheep for the indefinite promise of future help, or kill the lion, a man I actually liked, for the security of cold, hard credits handed over by traitors.
Could I kill a man who didn’t deserve it in cold blood? I wasn’t entirely sure I could, not and live with myself afterwards. The little piece of soul I had left didn’t need any more stains.
I shook my head. I needed to talk to Ari. This was not a decision I could make alone, nor one I could make in haste. I needed to sleep on it, at least for tonight.
“Would you truly kill me to save your people?” Valentin asked.
“If the situation were reversed, would you? If your people were starving and you knew my death could feed your entire Empire for two years or longer, would you pull the trigger?”
He stared at me for a long time. “No,” he said softly, “I don’t think I could kill you, even for my Empire. Some random stranger, maybe, if it was the only option. I would hate myself, but I would do it for the good of my people. But you?” He shook his head.
Warmth blossomed in my chest, no matter how hard I tried to suppress it, and I inclined my head in agreement. I might be able to kill someone, but I didn’t think I could kill Valentin.
“If you decide to go through with it,” he said with a gallows grin, “make sure you get the money up front. I’d hate to die for nothing.”
“I can’t promise anything other than this: I won’t kill you like a thief in the night,” I said. “You have my word that you’ll be safe until morning, at the very least. I suggest you come up with a very compelling case for letting you go.”
He nodded. “Until morning, then,” he said.
“Until morning,” I echoed.
It was going to be a long, long night.
Part 2 will be out later this week. :)