Clean and dressed, I headed across the hall to the galley to find something to eat. The thought of food made me vaguely nauseous, but I at least needed to drink some juice to make up for the blood loss.
“Samara!” Valentin shouted. “Samara Rani, I know you can hear me. Let me out of here!” He banged something against the wall of his cell. “Samara!”
In the galley, I grabbed two energy bars and two bottles of rehydration fluid—I wasn’t wasting my precious apple juice on Emperor Kos. With no reason to delay further, I went to face the dragon.
Valentin stopped shouting when I entered the room. He stood close to the wall of his cell, and with all of his fury focused on me, I was very glad we were separated by two inches of clear thermoplastic.
“I trusted you and you lied to me,” he said without preamble.
“I didn’t lie,” I said. I pushed the bottle and energy bar through the narrow opening designed for food trays. Valentin ignored both items.
“You let me believe you were rescuing me,” he bit out. “A lie by omission is still a lie.”
“I did rescue you,” I said. “You’re safe. I will not torture you. I don’t care what the Quint Confederacy wanted from you. As soon as your advisors pay me for my trouble, I’ll deliver you directly into their loving embrace.”
His eyes widened. “You’re ransoming me?” he asked.
“Yes. How much do you think you’re worth to your Empire? I was thinking ten million.”
He shook his head. “I can’t believe the rumors about you are true after all.”
My own temper ignited. “Which rumors?” I asked. “The ones about how your stupid fucking war is sending thousands of refugees into neutral territories like mine, territories that can’t feed the people they already have because that same fucking war shut down trade? Because that isn’t rumor, that’s fact.”
Some emotion I couldn’t name passed over Valentin’s face before being replaced by a sneer. “No, I was the referring to the rumors that you’re a cold-hearted bitch.”
I laughed. “Oh, I’m far worse than that. And I will do whatever it takes to keep my people safe. You had better hope your advisors pay up quickly, Emperor Kos.”
“They won’t give you a single credit,” he said.
“Then you’d better get used to that cell because you’re going to be enjoying it for a long, long time.”
He slammed his palm against the wall separating us. “Dammit, let me out of here. We can work something out.”
“No,” I said. “If you really want out, then start thinking of a way to get your advisors to pay your ransom faster.”
“I don’t want to hurt you,” he said with quiet menace, “but I will if I have to. I don’t have time for this.”
“You do what you have to do. But know this: if you do manage to hurt me, I’ll leave you to the same fate my people are currently suffering. And starving to death is a terrible way to die.”
“You can drop the act,” he said, true fury in his voice. “We both know the people of the Rogue Coalition are fine. Playing for my sympathy won’t save you.”
I blinked at him, momentarily thrown. “Just to be clear,” I said slowly, “you think my people aren’t starving and that I risked my life to rescue you from Quint’s clutches because…” I trailed off, interested to see how he’d finish that sentence.
“I thought you did it because the Kos Empire had hired you to. That was obviously wrong. Now, I think you did it to prove you could,” Valentin said. “You saw an opportunity to further line your coffers and you took it.”
“Wow.” I shook my head in disbelief. “Wow,” I said again. “Okay, here’s a free piece of advice: fire your intelligence advisors. They are either morons or malicious. Either way, you’d be better off without them.”
Valentin scoffed. “Because, of course, you’re the only one telling the truth.”
I opened my bottle of rehydration liquid and drank half of it. It tasted like I imagined sweaty old socks would taste, but I forced it down. I also nibbled on my energy bar while I let my temper settle.
Advisors were vitally important for a ruler, a lesson I’d had to learn after running myself ragged trying to stay on top of every issue. And the entire Rogue Coalition was just a few hundred thousand people on five planets—the Kos Empire controlled half of the known universe.
And, by design, advisors had an enormous amount of power to influence a ruler. By filtering the data they passed on, they could shape an issue however they wanted. A few advisors working together could do a lot to undermine an unwanted Emperor who was busy elsewhere trying to build support and stay alive.
Finally, I asked, “Out of the last five skirmishes between you and the Quint Confederacy, how many did the Kos Empire win?”
“We won them all,” he said. “Why?”
“Including the battle at C18?” I clarified.
“Yes. We took heavy losses but were ultimately victorious. What does this have to do with anything?”
I switched tack. “Did you replace the imperial advisors when you took over as Emperor?” I asked. If he truly hadn’t stolen the crown, then the likely answer was no. He’d need the old advisors to keep some semblance of stability.
Valentin’s own temper had cooled, and he stared down his nose at me, every inch the Emperor. Unfortunately, it didn’t make him any less attractive. “I don’t see how that’s any of your business,” he said coldly.
“The Kos Empire got spanked at C18,” I said. “Your troops were outnumbered ten to one. It wasn’t ‘heavy losses,’ it was total annihilation. The battle before that was also a decisive defeat. Two others were barely more than draws. You only won one of the five. The Kos Empire is losing the war. I don’t know what your advisors are telling you, but you need to clean house. And maybe check a news outlet at least once a year or so.”
“I don’t believe you,” he said, “and of course I check the news. Perhaps you should check your sources.”
“I didn’t figure you would believe me. And if I show you proof, you’ll think I forged it. But remember this conversation when you get home. Do some digging. Check news sources that aren’t Kos controlled. Don’t just swallow whatever your advisors are telling you. I thought you were just incompetent or indifferent, but now I’m not so sure. I think someone is sabotaging you.”
“And benevolent Queen Rani is the only one who sees the truth,” Valentin said flatly. “How convenient.”
My fingers curled into fists as I fought to urge to go in there and bash his thick skull against the wall until he saw reason. I blew out a breath. It wasn’t my problem, but I couldn’t let it go without one more attempt. Despite everything, I actually liked him.
“Just do some independent research,” I said. “Your people deserve that much from their Emperor.”
His mouth flattened into a hard line, but he nodded.
“I’ve blocked all outgoing communication and shut down all neural link connections,” I said, “so if you need me, you’ll have to shout. Abuse the privilege and I’ll turn on the soundproofing on your cell. We have four hours until our next jump. I suggest you sleep.”
“If you let me go right now, I give you my word that I won’t declare war on you, Queen Rani,” Valentin said.
“You won’t declare war anyway because it’s going to be part of the ransom agreement. Believe it or not, I’m not stupid.”
“I never said you were stupid,” he said.
“No, just cold-hearted and greedy. And you’re about to get a first-hand look at just how much of both I am. I hope some of your advisors are smarter than you,” I said as I turned to leave. “At least the ones that don’t want you dead or declared incompetent.”
“Dammit, Samara! Let me out!” Valentin yelled.
I stopped in the doorway. “Invictia turn on soundproofing in the cells,” I said.
A chime sounded and Valentin’s mouth moved but no words reached me. “I can’t hear you,” I said, “so feel free to continue shouting yourself hoarse. I’ll be back to check on you in a few hours.”
The soundproofing was one-way, so Valentin could hear me just fine. He paused then slapped his hand against the cell wall and very clearly enunciated, “Fuck. You.”
I blew him a kiss on my way out the door.