While I had an advisory council, I trusted Ari and Stella Mueller significantly more than any of my other advisors. I usually involved the council, but in the end, the Rogue Coalition was a monarchy and I was the final word. And in this case, the fewer people who knew Valentin was here, the better.
Ari and Stella let themselves in and joined me in my living room. Stella was several centimeters taller than me, with rich brown skin, dark eyes, and long dark hair. People mistook us for sisters, which I took as an extreme compliment because Stella was beautiful. She and Ari made a strikingly gorgeous couple.
I waved them in but stayed in my favorite oversized chair with my leg propped on a makeshift footrest. Stella took one look at me and pulled a med scanner seemingly from thin air. “Where are you hurt?” she demanded, her voice sharp with concern. “Let’s see it.” She slanted an irritated glance at Ari. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Ari raised her hands in surrender, then flopped down on the sofa across from me. “Samara promised to visit medical as soon as she had time.”
Stella gestured impatiently at me, and I stood and dropped my pants. I knew better than to argue with Stella when she was on a mission. She inspected the bandage on my thigh, ran the scanner over my leg, and made various noncommittal noises before she finally conceded, “It’s decent. For now.”
She pulled an injector and fitted it with a vial—Stella was like a walking medicine chest. I stopped her before she pressed it against my skin. “I need to be alert,” I said. “I’ll deal with the pain.”
She rolled her eyes at me. “I do know what I’m doing.”
I waved her on and Stella pressed the injector below my injury and pulled the trigger. She helped me prop my leg up again, then sat down next to Ari and mock glared at her. “This is just the most convenient seat. I’m still mad at you for hiding Samara’s injury.”
Ari grinned and tugged Stella close. Stella made a pretense of fighting the pull, then melted into Ari’s side. “You know how our beloved Queen is,” Ari said, “as stubborn as a goat.”
They both nodded knowingly at me while I pretended ignorance.
The pain in my thigh faded, but I didn’t notice any of the drowsy, disconnected feeling I’d had before. “It seems you have the good drugs,” I said to Stella.
“Of course,” she agreed with a wink.
I briefly filled them in on the ransom response from the Kos Empire and my chat with Valentin. By the time I was done, their expressions had turned serious, their earlier playfulness gone.
“Let’s talk options,” I said.
“Ten million credits is a hell of a lot of money,” Stella said slowly. “That could buy us a life-saving amount of food and supplies.” Before coming to Arx, Stella had been a front-lines surgeon. She was used to assessing the situation in a blink and deciding who might live and who would die.
She hadn’t met Valentin, so he was just a stranger worth years of food. And the people of Arx were her family while Valentin continued the war that killed her brother.
Ari took a more moderate stance. “I think we should work with Valentin,” she said. “He controls half the known universe and is in no position to bargain. We hold all of the cards. Perhaps we can work out a long-term deal worth more than a one-time payment. Plus, I like him.”
Stella huffed out a laugh and bumped shoulders with Ari. “You’re too softhearted.”
It was the first time I’d ever heard anyone call my tough-as-nails security advisor ‘softhearted,’ but if anyone could get away with it, it was Stella.
“Which way are you leaning?” Ari asked.
I blew out a breath. “I don’t think I can kill him,” I said. “I mean, I could, physically, of course, but he doesn’t deserve it, and I don’t need another black mark on my soul.”
“Ari isn’t the only one who likes him,” Stella concluded.
I inclined my head in silent agreement. Despite trying to keep my distance, I did like Valentin. And now it might cost the Rogue Coalition everything.
I slumped back in my chair and stared at the ceiling. “Do we have any other options?”
“He didn’t offer to pay the ransom himself?” Ari asked.
“Too bad,” she grumbled.
We stayed up until the wee hours of the morning discussing various possibilities and mostly talking in circles. When I could no longer keep my eyes open, I saw them to the door then trudged to my bedroom. I fell face first into bed, bone weary. We hadn’t decided anything officially, but I already knew that I wasn’t going to kill Valentin.
Tomorrow—later today, my tired brain corrected—I would hash out an agreement with him then send him back to his imperial palace on Achentsev Prime. If he survived his half-brother, maybe he would uphold his end of the bargain.
If not, the Rogue Coalition was done.
For the second time in as many days, I awoke to alarms. My eyes felt leaden, like I’d barely closed them, but neural links were coming in faster than I could answer them. I recognized Ari’s signature and opened the link.
What’s going on? I growled without opening my eyes. I rolled over onto my back. I wasn’t leaving the bed if this was Ari’s idea of a fun time for a training exercise.
A battle fleet of Kos warships just jumped on top of us. They have at least three squadrons of fighters in the air and they’re shooting anything that moves. Two platoons are on the ground, though I don’t know how they landed so quickly. They’ve already taken out most of our outer defenses.
That woke me up. Evacuate the civilians now, I sent through the link while I scrambled out of bed. In a lucky break, I’d been so tired I’d worn my clothes to sleep. Tell them to head for the tunnels. Do not engage the Kos troops unless it’s to get people to the evac zone. We’ll hold the tunnel doors open as long as we can.
The alarm tone changed to the tunnel evacuation cadence. With fighters in the air it would be suicide to launch evac ships from the main base. We had a secondary launch point five kilometers away via tunnel, but not enough ships for everyone. It would be chaos.
Have the Kos ships tried to hail us? I demanded as I slammed open the doors to my personal armory.
No, Ari said, they are running silent. Our attempts to hail them have been ignored.
Why would the Kos Empire attack? There was no way they could already know that I wasn’t going to kill Valentin for them. And while they could claim Valentin died during a rescue mission, why risk it until they knew for sure that I wouldn’t do the deed for them?
My hand froze over the blaster I’d been about to grab.
Realization dawned. These weren’t the traitors, come to kill Valentin, these were his troops, staging a true rescue—a rescue he must’ve orchestrated while we visited the market.
My people’s suffering had not changed his mind. And when I’d asked him if I needed to evacuate the civilians, he’d lied to my face with a charming smile because he planned to use my civilians’ lives as bargaining chips for his own.
Betrayal stabbed deep, and I blinked away useless, stupid tears. Now was not the time. I plastered over the wound with pure fury.
Valentin Kos would rue the day he’d decided to fuck with the Rogue Queen.
I wrapped a utility belt around my waist and strapped a blast pistol on each hip. I secured a combat knife on my right flank. A dozen extra magazines filled with lethal, highly illegal armor-piercing blast bolts went in a pouch on my left flank.
I did not plan to take prisoners.
The urge to find Valentin and shoot him was nearly overpowering. But then the Kos ships would destroy Arx. I took a deep breath. If this truly was a rescue mission, perhaps the Kos soldiers would focus on the rescue and leave my civilians alone.
I mentally pulled up the security video from Valentin’s cell. He pounded on the cell wall and yelled, but the aging microphones had malfunctioned and the vid had no audio.
The guards were gone from in front of his cell. Ari must’ve pulled them back because two guards in an open hallway would be cannon fodder for a platoon of Kos troops.
I closed the vid, seething with rage and betrayal. I walled the emotions off and focused. I needed to get everyone out before the Kos soldiers broke through our defenses. I would deal with Valentin later. I slung a compact blast rifle over my shoulder and headed for the door.
Where are you? I asked Ari across the link.
I’m headed for the market, she said, sounding breathless. I’ve got a squad and Malcolm has a squad. The rest are still trickling in. We’re setting up blockades in the western hallway. I’m sending Malcolm to you.
No, I countered. Keep him there. I’ll check the rooms on this side then make my way over. Keep the civilians safe. Link me again if things change. I closed the neural link before she could protest.
From the air looking down, the underground part of Arx was roughly T-shaped. Arx’s main hallway was the top of the T and ran east-west. The shorter southern hallway was the T’s base. The surface-level entrance was located where the two hallways met.
The market, primary hangar, and most of the residences branched off of the main hallway west of the entrance. The evacuation tunnel started at the far western end of the main hallway.
Besides my quarters, the eastern half of Arx included various storage and utility rooms, the secondary hangar, and the mess hall. The southern hallway led to the large maintenance areas and the small cluster of holding cells where Valentin was confined.
Unfortunately, because I lived on the east side, I was on my own until I hit the market.
I took the stairs down two at a time while I pulled up the base’s outside vid feeds. Sure enough, at least fifty soldiers in full combat armor were creeping across the base directly towards the main entrance. The entrance was not obvious from looking at the above-ground base layout, even from the air—they’d gotten their hands on the plans.
They were not being bombarded by blaster fire, so they must’ve taken out the automated turrets, which meant they had an open path to the door. I needed to haul ass.