Stella and I waited in the open-sided indoor transport while Ari put Asray into standby. It occurred to me after Ari left that I probably should’ve been the one to do it, but in my current emotional state, I’d just as likely launch the ship into orbit. Perhaps it was best that Ari took care of it.
“Thank you for saving my life,” I said to Stella. “I know I’m a difficult patient, but I really do appreciate everything you do.”
She waved off my words. “All of my favorite patients are difficult,” she confided. “But that doesn’t mean I won’t bust your ass back to medical if I see you lifting anything even a gram over the limit. I have a scale and I’m not afraid to use it.”
I laughed at the mental picture of her trailing me with a scale. She would do it, too. “I’ll be on my best behavior,” I told her honestly.
She muttered something under her breath that sounded very much like, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Ari returned and Stella started up the transport for the quick trip to Arx. I reconnected to the net on the way. I checked the news feed but there was nothing coming out of the Kos Empire. No bloody coups, no massacre of advisors. Had Emperor Kos told me a single truth?
Disappointment and something deeper, more painful lodged in my chest. I’d thought he was the incompetent one, but he’d played me like a fool and I’d eaten it up. Samara Rani, Queen of Fools.
I checked my messages. I had a half-dozen from the official account of the Kos Emperor as well as another four from a private account that had to be his as well.
Temptation beckoned. I hesitated. Maybe he would feed me some more pretty lies and this painful ball of emotions in my chest would fade away.
I closed the messages unread. I would deal with him later.
Luckily, I didn’t have time to wallow because Stella drove us straight to the market. The overhead panels twinkled with stars and the gathered crowd cheered as I stepped out of the transport. Showtime.
“You didn’t really think I’d let those bastards kill me, did you?” I asked. The crowd roared in approval.
Zita came forward, as happy as I’d ever seen her. “Come with me,” she said. She pulled me along slowly. People kept stopping me to offer thanks or congratulations. Ari was right, everyone was in very good spirits.
I spotted Lily and Gareth standing snuggled together next to Lily’s stern-faced father. Apparently that cat was out of the bag. Lily’s father was speaking to Gareth and didn’t look homicidal, so I hoped they had come to an understanding. Lily glowed with happiness.
Zita sat me at the large metal table outside of her bakery then disappeared inside. Ari and Stella just grinned when I raised a questioning eyebrow at them.
The bakery door opened and Zita reappeared carrying an enormous tray of tiny, bite-sized desserts. She set the tray on the table and I could see the intricate flowers, swirls, and other decorations she’d created for each piece. My mouth watered.
“To the Queen’s health!” Zita shouted.
“To the Queen’s health!” the crowd shouted back. At this point I think they would’ve said anything to get one of her famous desserts, and I didn’t blame them one bit.
Zita waved her hand at the tray and I selected a golden-frosted square with a tiny crown of orange flowers. At Zita’s nod, I took a bite. Spicy cake and sugary frosting exploded on my tongue and I moaned in delight.
The crowd laughed, Zita beamed, and Ari nodded in approval.
Assistants brought out more trays and the crowd joined me in the simple delight of food that did more than meet basic nutrition needs. A woman strummed a guitar while she and her husband sang a duet, and soon they were joined by more instruments.
The crowd’s energy shifted, a dance floor was cleared, and the party began in earnest. Tonight would be a late night as people partied for the first time in months.
I smiled and laughed as I mingled in the crowd, but my heart wasn’t in it. No matter how much I told myself that I’d earned this food and my people’s happiness by rescuing the Emperor in the first place, the argument fell flat and the sugar soured in my stomach.
Ari pulled me aside. “What’s up?” she asked quietly.
“I’m just trying to decide where I went wrong,” I said.
“We can all see mistakes looking backwards,” she said. “I could’ve done so many things differently during the attack and then maybe you wouldn’t have nearly died.”
She continued, “But in the end, people are happy and we have food for at least a few more months. We may not have the ten million credits you wanted, but we’re alive to try something else.” She hesitated then forged on. “Did he contact you?”
I didn’t try to play dumb. “I haven’t read any of the messages,” I said. I tried to articulate my fears. “There were so many lies, I’m not sure I can see the truth any more.”
“As usual, you give yourself too little credit,” Ari said. “You are the best judge of character I’ve ever seen. Remember when Eddie first arrived? I was ready to cut him loose a hundred times and you always rallied for him, despite the fact that he cursed your name. Don’t think about it, just feel. Does your gut tell you that Valentin intentionally betrayed you?”
No. The denial was instantaneous and instinctive, but just as quickly, my brain listed the stack of evidence against him. “What if my gut is wrong?” I asked.
“It might be, but what do you have to lose by talking to him?” Ari asked. “If he wanted you dead, he had more than enough firepower to see the job done. He might want your people, but they’ll never follow him, so no risk there. Trigon Three has no tactical importance. You lose nothing, but you might gain an ally.”
I feared I had far more to lose than nothing, but I just said, “I’ll think about it. Now go dance with Stella before someone steals her away.”
Ari flashed me a grin. “I know you’re purposefully distracting me, but I’ll let you get away with it this time.” With that parting shot, she disappeared into the crowd.
A few minutes later, I slipped into the shadows to think about her words.