I spent the next few days putting out fires large and small. Now that we had food again, people seemingly lost their damn minds. I knew they were just blowing off steam after months of focused good behavior, but cracking skulls and dishing out punishments kept me busy enough that exhaustion plagued my steps.
The Kos Empire reopened trade and started allowing Rogue Coalition crews to take on shipping and mercenary jobs once more. My people went back to work and the number of incidents I had to mediate dropped steeply.
Food and supplies kept arriving, and I knew I was going to have to confront Valentin about it, but I always found a reason to put it off for just one more day.
Then, two days later, a morning came and went without a new message from Valentin.
I told myself I was relieved. I maybe even believed it, for a few hours. But in the quiet of my office, curiosity gnawed on me. Had Valentin been kidnapped again? Had Nikolas finally succeeded in killing him?
I opened the list of his messages. I hadn’t read any of them, but yesterday’s sang a siren song. I had never been a coward, but I was treading dangerously close to it right now. That wasn’t how I wanted to live my life, so I opened the damn message.
Before I’d even had a chance to read the first line, a video neural link from an unknown contact tickled the back of my mind. I hesitated.
Samara, please accept, Valentin’s voice whispered through my head, so faint I almost thought I’d made it up. It should’ve been impossible, but I’d seen him do other impossible things.
I routed the link through my desktop terminal and accepted.
Valentin’s face appeared on the vid screen in front of me. His bruises had healed and he’d shaved. He had on a dark suit. His white shirt was open at the collar, and the casual elegance just added to his appeal. My heart twisted. I’d thought having the distance of him on screen instead of inside my head would help, but it didn’t seem to be working.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“No thanks to you,” I said. I could mentally link him, but the terminal’s microphones would pick up my speech just as easily. Distance, I needed distance. The feeling of betrayal that I thought I’d moved past welled up again.
“I know you won’t believe me, but I swear to you that I didn’t order the attack. I had told my troops where I was, but I told them to wait for further instructions. When they intercepted the advisors’ message offering you a kill contract, they decided they had to rescue me.”
“That’s convenient for you,” I said bitterly. “The exact outcome you wanted without any of the dirty responsibility for attacking civilians.”
“You put me in an isolation cell,” he said, his voice mild. “My troops couldn’t verify I was okay, and I couldn’t call off the attack until they found me. Once I heard the alarms, I guessed what had happened, but no one was around to let me out.”
The rebuke hit home. I had put him in a cell, and I had watched as he pounded on the cell wall. I’d thought he was trying to let his troops know where he was, but perhaps he had been trying to get out, to call off the attack.
In a way, that made the attack my fault. Shame and regret swirled through my system. I should’ve done so many things differently. Hindsight was always clearest, but that didn’t make me feel any better right now.
“Samara—” Valentin started.
I cut him off. “How are you linking me? Are you nearby?” Our com system wasn’t good enough to handle a long-distance link, especially not a vid link.
Valentin grimaced, an expression I was beginning to learn meant he was about to tell me something I wasn’t going to like.
“I am in Koan,” he said. Koan was the Kos Empire’s capital city on Achentsev Prime. He waved his hand and the camera panned to show me his tastefully decorated office. “But I might’ve positioned a Kos communication satellite near you.”
“So now you’re spying on our communications, too?” I asked.
“No! The satellite is running dark. None of your traffic will go through it by default. You weren’t opening my messages. I thought maybe they weren’t arriving. And I wanted to be able to talk to you, to explain. To hear that you were okay. Ari wouldn’t tell me anything.”
“If your soldier had aimed a few centimeters to the right, I’d be dead,” I said.
He swallowed and met my eyes through the vid link. “I’m sorry,” he said, “so very sorry. I thought it must be bad when Ari wouldn’t let me talk to you. You were in a med chamber.”
It wasn’t a question, but I answered it anyway. “For a week,” I said flatly. A week in a med chamber was an eon.
He flinched, just a tiny bit, like I’d poked a hidden wound. I expected to feel satisfaction at the jab, but I just felt spiteful and sad.
I changed the subject. “Why are you sending us food and supplies?”
Valentin’s expression shifted and he put on a charming grin. “I don—”
“If you lie to me, I’m disconnecting this link and that will be the end of it. I am done with lies.”
The grin faded, and after a second, Valentin nodded. “No more lies,” he agreed softly. He looked momentarily uncertain, like he didn’t know what to do without his charming persona to hide behind.
I waited for him to collect his thoughts. If we were ever going to be friends or allies, this conversation would be the first step. And I had the feeling that I would regret it if I tried to rush him.
“You risked your life to rescue me from Commander Adams,” he said slowly, feeling his way through the words. “You had your own motivation, but you still rescued me, and I inadvertently repaid that debt by attacking you and your people. You need food and I have extra. Sending you some of that extra food is my first step in making up for the harm I caused.”
He spoke with sincerity. Not the false, charming sincerity of a diplomat, but the genuine, honest feelings of a man who felt he was in the wrong and was trying to make it right.
Despite my brain desperately advising caution, I believed him. He hadn’t purposefully betrayed me and he hadn’t lied to my face when I’d asked him about evacuating my civilians.
Without betrayal driving my anger, I was left with disappointment and regret. I met his eyes. “I was planning to let you go, you know. Send you home with just your word that you’d help. Then, just hours after you told me I didn’t need to evacuate, your troops attacked.”
His expression flickered as some nameless emotion crossed his face too quickly for me to catch. “I know, and I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know if you’ll be able to forgive me, but if you can, I’d like for us to be allies. I’ve heard you offer leadership classes at a very reasonable rate.”
I chuckled and some of my disappointment drained away. “It’s true, I do. It might be worth it just to give your advisors an apoplexy.”
Valentin’s grin had a vicious edge and I again caught a glimpse of the calculating Emperor under his pretty exterior. He might not have been groomed for the job from birth but he seemed to be doing just fine at misleading everyone around him. If everyone underestimated him, that made his job so much easier.
Perhaps I should be taking lessons from him after all.
“I am planning to do a little house cleaning in the coming months,” he said. “Having a few advisors spontaneously die off because the Rogue Queen is teaching me might help speed things along.”
“Tired of being stabbed in the back?” I asked.
“Yes. And thanks to Commander Adams’ loose lips, I finally have enough information to transition some of the worst offenders out without destabilizing the Empire.”
“Speaking of Commander Adams,” I said, “do you have any information on his location?” Once I’d been freed from the med chamber, I’d tried to track him down—he and I were overdue for a little chat. But after the attack on Invictia, his trail had disappeared. None of the various ship trackers had gotten a ping from his ship since I’d arrived in Arx.
Valentin grimaced again. “I ordered a battle fleet after him once we landed in Arx. He refused to surrender, so now he’s scattered across the edge of your sector.”
Satisfaction filled me. I would’ve like to deal with him myself, but I wasn’t going to cry over the fact that someone had beat me to it. Either way, he’d gotten what he deserved.
Just to be clear about the sequence of events, I asked, “Was it the same battle fleet that decided to ‘rescue’ you?”
Valentin nodded slowly, a wary expression on his face.
Well, at least that explained why Commander Adams’ trail went cold and how the Kos battle fleet had arrived so quickly after the message from Valentin’s advisors. The pieces were coming together, and despite Valentin’s worried expression, they were corroborating his story.
“Where do we go from here?” I asked softy.
“I was serious about us becoming allies,” Valentin said. “I would like for us to sign a formal treaty.”
“My people will never agree,” I said. “They want nothing to do with Kos or Quint politically. I already tried to build support for a treaty when we were starving and they shot it down.”
“What if the treaty favors the Rogue Coalition?” Valentin asked.
“Maybe,” I said, “but why would you do that? What do you gain?”
“I owe you a debt. The treaty is another step towards payment.” He paused, then continued ruefully, “And I’m hoping rumors of the treaty will goad one or more of my advisors into making a mistake.”
Before I could respond, someone knocked on Valentin’s door. He glanced off screen and his face smoothed into a polite mask. When he looked back at me, he was all Emperor. “We will have to continue this discussion later. Please think about what I said.”
I nodded and he cut the link.
For the next month, Valentin and I linked nearly every day, sometimes with vid and sometimes without. We started out with stilted, awkward conversations about treaty details, but soon we were discussing a multitude of topics, most of which weren’t at all related to treaties or ruling.
I slowly forgave him for his inadvertent betrayal, and in return, he seemingly kept his promise not to lie to me. Our tentative alliance morphed into true friendship. Beneath the cool Emperor and the playboy charm, Valentin was funny and warm and bitingly sarcastic.
If I sometimes wondered what would’ve happened to our relationship had his troops not attacked, I kept those feelings tightly locked down.
We eventually hashed out a treaty agreement that my advisors could get behind. As Queen, I could unilaterally sign a treaty, but that was a good way to no longer be Queen.
Valentin chose the unilateral route. He seemed to hope someone would come after him. Nikolas had apparently gone underground and Valentin wanted to flush him out.
I had negotiated with gusto. I wasn’t the Rogue Queen for nothing, newborn friendship notwithstanding.
Ari and I met in my office to look over the final agreement. I’d already gotten sign-off from the advisory council, but I wanted one last check to make sure I hadn’t missed anything.
“You’re sure this is the right document?” Ari asked for the third time in as many minutes.
“Yeah, I’m sure,” I said.
As part of the treaty, the Kos Empire agreed not to block trade or hinder Rogue Coalition ships from taking shipping or mercenary jobs. And we could buy their excess food at a discounted price for the next five years.
We had free passage through their territory, but they could not draft us into their war, no matter what happened. If one of their enemies attacked us, Kos had to assist in our defense.
The treaty would be confidential to cut down on potential attacks, but if it leaked and Quint decided to come after us, I wanted the assurance of backup with big guns. I didn’t want the Rogue Coalition to get dragged into the war by proxy.
In return, I would offer Valentin Kos four weeks of “leadership” training—his idea—and the Rogue Coalition agreed not to go to war with the Kos Empire without provocation.
That was it.
It wasn’t a great deal for the Kos Empire, considering they could squash us like a bug if they put their mind to it, but Valentin seemed to have every intention of signing it.
Ari finished re-reading the agreement and seemingly shared my doubts. “And he’s going to sign this, here, in Arx?”
“So he says.” He was scheduled to arrive in ten days, and I was trying my very hardest not to let the fluttery feeling in my chest morph into anything more.
Ari’s grin took on a sly edge that meant trouble. “Are you excited to see him?” she asked.
There was no point in lying to my best friend—she’d see right through it. “Yes,” I said. “Maybe a little too much.”
“You have to admit he’s made amends. Perhaps you should give him a chance.”
“I don’t think he sees me like that,” I said. “He wants to be allies.”
Ari shot me a highly skeptical look, then sighed. “You’re hopeless,” she grumbled.
A week before Valentin was scheduled to arrive, Ari asked me to meet her in my private hangar to go over security details. When I arrived, she was waiting for me at the hangar door.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Just wanted to double check a few things,” she said. She ushered me through the door into the hangar.
Invictia was over in the main hangar. The software techs had found and removed the tracker, and the shipwrights were working to put her back together again after my firefight with Ticon. In Invictia’s place sat a sleek black ship, a little bigger than my own ship. I’d never seen it before.
I turned to Ari, but she had beat a hasty retreat while I wasn’t looking. She leaned against the wall next to the door, holding a blaster in a casual grip that I knew could turn deadly in an instant. “Ari?” I asked. She waved but didn’t move.
“What the hell?” I demanded.
“I believe she is standing out of reach of your wrath,” Valentin said as he stepped out of the maintenance room beside me.
My hand clutched for a non-existent weapon as I spun to face him. “You’re lucky I’m not armed,” I said. “I could’ve shot you on reflex for sneaking up on me.”
Valentin had on black pants and a long-sleeved gray shirt that stretched nicely across his sculpted chest. I jerked my gaze up and found him grinning at me.
“Ari warned me not to startle you if you had a blaster,” he said. “Since you didn’t, I figured it was safe.”
Ari snorted and I agreed. Just because I didn’t have a blaster didn’t mean I was safe.
“What are you doing here?” I asked. I told my pulse to settle down and ordered the butterflies out of my stomach. Friends, we were friends.
He shrugged. “Vid links are fine, but I wanted to see you. I found myself nowhere near this sector, so I decided to stop by,” he said with a sheepish grin. “Ari helped me get in. Surprise!”
I smiled at him. I had to admit, I was glad to see him in person, too. “Is this your ship parked in my hangar?” I asked.
“Yes. Korax is my personal ship.”
I looked away from him and back to the ship. “She’s a beauty,” I said.
“Yes, she is,” he agreed softly.
His words swept over me, and I wondered if he meant them the way they sounded. I darted a glance at him but his expression didn’t give anything away.
“How long are you staying?” I asked.
“I have to head back early tomorrow morning,” he said. “Something came up and I can’t make the trip next week, but I wanted to see you and sign the treaty, so I snuck away for the day.”
“How many guards did you bring? Do I have to worry about them skulking around invisible?”
“Luka, you heard the lady. Stop skulking,” Valentin said.
“Now, Luka,” Valentin commanded. An armed soldier in combat armor blinked into view next to the ship’s cargo ramp. “Samara, meet Luka Fox, my overprotective bodyguard. Luka, meet Queen Samara Rani and her head of security, Arietta Mueller.”
“You didn’t think combat armor was a little much?” I asked Valentin. “You do remember what happened last time your armored troops were here, right?”
Valentin heaved a long-suffering sigh. “Luka was here, and he saw you shoot the drone. You’ve made him paranoid.”
My attention snapped back to Luka like a shark scenting blood. I took a step towards him. “You—”
Valentin gently grabbed my left arm and pulled me to a stop. “Luka found me in the cells. He’s not responsible for any of your injured.”
“He loses the armor or he stays with the ship,” I said. “If I find him sneaking around—and I will if he tries it—he forfeits his right to diplomatic immunity.”
“Agreed,” Valentin said. He glanced at his bodyguard. Luka scowled then started stripping out of his armor with brisk efficiency. Valentin said, “I tried to tell him that you’d never allow combat armor, but he wanted the element of surprise in case you attacked.”
“Showing up in combat armor is not a great way to begin an alliance,” I grumbled.
“It wasn’t meant as a threat,” Valentin said. “Luka was just doing his job.”
Valentin turned me around to face him, then let go of my arm and brushed gentle fingers over what I knew were dark circles under my eyes. My thoughts derailed.
“How are you?” he asked quietly.
“I’m completely healed,” I said. “Just busy.”
“Let’s get this treaty signed so you have one less thing to deal with.”
I nodded. It would be nice not to have to think about it anymore.
Luka stomped towards us wearing black pants and a long-sleeved black shirt. As he approached, I noticed he was big, taller than Valentin, and all muscle.
He had a shock of wavy, ice blond hair that looked like it’d spent too much time in his helmet, then he’d run his hands through it and called it good. His fierce scowl might be classified a weapon, but I also counted at least three other concealed guns on him.
“Expecting a war?” I asked.
His scowl deepened.
Okay, then. “You’re here as a guest. You will respect our laws. If you start any shit, you can expect me to finish it, even if I have to go through Valentin to make it happen. Understand?”
Luka nodded once.
“Welcome to Arx,” I said.
We passed Ari on the way out. I smiled at her and flicked my eyes back towards the ship. Her expression turned angelic. Luka demanded Ari exit first, but she just grinned at him and planted herself more firmly against the wall. When Valentin and I continued out of the hangar, Luka was forced to leave Ari and follow.
I had no doubt that by the time Ari left the hangar, the Rogue Coalition would be the proud new owner of a set of Kos special-ops combat armor.
Most of my people thought Emperor Kos and I were signing a food trade agreement rather than a treaty. A food agreement was much less interesting to Quint, and therefore was much less likely to drag us into the war when word got out. And because we depended on jobs from the Kos Empire, people were cool but civil to Valentin.
We signed the treaty in front of my advisory council, then escaped to spend time catching up in person. We had dinner that included real food, and stayed up late talking. Even so, the minutes slipped away all too quickly.
At some point I must’ve nodded off because the next thing I knew, Valentin was shaking me awake.
“Sorry to wake you so early,” he said softly, “but I have to leave.”
I blinked and sat up. We were on the couch in the living room of his guest quarters. Someone had put a blanket over me and I’d been using his shoulder as a pillow. Heat rushed into my cheeks.
“You should’ve woken me earlier,” I said. “I would’ve left so you could go to bed.”
“I don’t mind,” he said. “I fell asleep right after you.”
I stood and stretched. When Valentin was ready, I escorted him and Luka back to my private hangar. Luka scowled at the empty spot where he’d discarded his armor.
“I believe you have something of mine, Queen Rani,” he said. His voice was deep with a pleasant rumble, even with irritation lacing the words.
I gave him my most guileless smile. “What do you mean?” I asked politely. “Did you forget something in the guest quarters?”
Valentin burst into laughter. “Serves you right, Luka. I told you the armor was a bad idea. Please get the ship ready for takeoff. Now,” Valentin clarified when Luka didn’t move.
Luka disappeared into the ship after one last grumpy scowl. I tossed him a jaunty wave in return.
Valentin stepped close and my heart rate picked up. “When will my leadership training begin?” he asked.
“Soon,” I promised.
I had a few things to wrap up in Arx, then I needed to pay a visit to a certain former security specialist—a meeting I looked forward to with vicious enthusiasm. Once I’d taken care of that little issue, I planned to head to Koan for the first of the four weeks I owed Valentin. I figured I’d help him gather intel on his advisors, but I wasn’t entirely sure what he expected the training to entail.
Satisfaction filled Valentin’s expression and his gray eyes gleamed like molten metal. “Good,” he said. He stepped back and offered me his hand with a shallow bow. I clasped his hand, but rather than giving me a handshake, he lifted my hand to his mouth and pressed his warm lips to the back of it. Tingles raced up my arm.
“Don’t wait too long,” he said with a grin. He straightened and dropped my hand. “Farewell, Queen Rani, until we meet again,” he said formally.
“Farewell, Emperor Kos. I will see you soon.”
He bowed again and then took his leave.
I watched until his ship disappeared into the gray sky.
We made it to the end! If you enjoyed The Queen’s Gambit, you might also like my novel, Polaris Rising, coming out early next year from Harper Voyager. It’s already listed on Goodreads, if that’s your thing, so you can add it to your TBR shelf. :)
I would like to extend a huge thank you to my volunteer betas: Regina Brandt, Alex Curran, Julie Ferm, Amanda Larson, and Liv W. Any and all mistakes remain my own.
Next up, the novella will go through several rounds of editing to smooth out the rough edges, then it will be released as an ebook. For more information, see the next post.
Finally, if you enjoyed the story, I would love for you to tell your friends. Authors live and die by word-of-mouth and nothing is more powerful than a recommendation from a friend. :)