Valentin’s eyebrows went up when he spotted the gun. “Going to shoot me?” he asked.
“It’s up to you,” I said. “You agree to come quietly and don’t try anything, and I’ll give you the opportunity to get out of a cell and stretch your legs. Fight or do something stupid and I’ll stun you and transfer you to a new cell to rot until your people pay for you.”
“Not much of a choice, is it?”
I smiled. “It’s still a choice, even if you don’t like the options,” I said.
“Samara!” Ari called.
“In the cells,” I called back. Not being able to neural link was going to be a real bitch.
“What is your choice?” I asked Valentin.
“I’ll cooperate,” he said. “Let me out of this box.”
“You’re really going to let him out?” Ari asked as she entered the room. She had on her work clothes—black utility pants and a tank top. Today’s tank was bright blue.
Despite the fact that even the underground rooms tended towards chilly, Ari rarely wore long sleeves. She was from a frozen planet that made Trigon Three look like a tropical paradise and after three years, her internal thermometer still hadn’t adjusted.
Valentin’s eyes widened at the sight of her. She had that effect on people. Tall, slender, and gorgeous, you’d never know from looking that a hard-ass lurked under her pretty blonde exterior.
Said hard-ass looked me over. “You’re lucky that you’re injured,” she said at last, “or I really would kick your ass.”
“I appreciate your restraint,” I deadpanned. I turned to the cell with a wave. “Ari, meet Emperor Valentin Kos. Valentin, meet Arietta Mueller, my bodyguard and head of security.”
“It’s a pleasure, Ms. Mueller,” Valentin said with a charming grin and a short bow.
Ari scowled at him. “Save it. If you must address me, call me Ari. You threaten the Queen in any way and I’ll take you out, Emperor or no. We clear?”
This time, Valentin’s smile was genuine. “We’re clear,” he said.
By letting him out of the cell, I was taking a calculated risk. I couldn’t prevent him from contacting his people, not without shutting down all of the Rogue Coalition’s communication—and I refused to shut down communication with a possible battle looming.
But taking Valentin along while I checked on my people would give him a first-hand view of the consequences of his stupid war. He might not believe my words but he’d be more likely to believe his own eyes. And that was worth the risk.
I crossed to his cell door. “Remember, you made a decision,” I said. “Don’t make me regret this.” He nodded and I opened the door.
I could practically feel Ari tensing behind me as Valentin stepped close. His gray eyes were solemn. I stood rooted and wary as he ghosted his fingers over my cheek. It would be so, so easy to fall under his spell. “Thank you for letting me out,” he said quietly. “I hate being confined.”
“You’re welcome,” I said. My voice came out huskier than I would’ve liked. I cleared my throat and forged on. “Stay close and don’t try anything or you’ll find yourself back in a cell. And next time I won’t be so nice.” I stepped away from him and turned to Ari. From his grin, Valentin knew a retreat when he saw one.
“Anything in particular need my attention?” I asked Ari. I did not like the speculative gleam in her eye.
“Nothing urgent,” she said.
“Then I’m heading to the market,” I said. “I’ve been gone too long. I need to check in.” I didn’t expect anarchy, but I always made it a point to stop by the market after an absence. It gave people a chance to see me and let me know about any concerns that had arisen while I was gone.
And the market was a public place with no tactical importance. Showing it to Valentin wouldn’t give him any advantage when he got a message out.
I eyed Valentin. He’d washed the dried blood off of his face, but the bruises remained. The stubble shadowing his jaw helped, but he still looked too much like himself.
“But first we’re going to need to disguise Valentin,” I said. “I’d rather not have to fight off a mob to keep him safe.”
“You give yourself too little credit,” Ari said. “The people may hate the Emperor, but they respect you. They wouldn’t mob you.”
“I’d rather not put it to the test,” I said. “We’ll head to my place then the market.”
I led, Valentin followed, and Ari brought up the rear. The four soldiers she’d brought waited for us on the cargo ramp. Lieutenant Peters saluted as I approached. I’d told him time and again that it wasn’t necessary, but he just smiled, nodded, and carried on doing exactly as he pleased. The three soldiers behind him copied his behavior.
“Welcome home, your majesty,” he said gravely. He usually only busted out the title for formal occasions, despite the fact that I’d told him it was not necessary. Either Ari had briefed him or he recognized Emperor Kos.
“I see you’re in fine form today, Lieutenant,” I said with the wave that was as close as I got to a salute. His formal facade cracked, and he grinned at me. I clutched dramatically at my chest. “Watch where you aim that thing, soldier. You’ll give a lady ideas.”
Malcolm Peters was fifty if he was a day, but he could still stop traffic with a smile. Add in beautiful ebony skin, a few interesting scars, and distinguished, close-cropped gray hair, and women, young and old, fell over themselves to knock on his door to see if he needed anything—anything at all.
It was a source of great amusement for the rest of us, and Malcolm put up with our gentle ribbing with aplomb, pretending ignorance while he played along.
Unfortunately, today my traditional opening line bordered on a lie. Soldiers were given larger rations to make up for their extra physical effort, but even so, Malcolm had lost weight.
I couldn’t even keep the men and women who’d volunteered to put themselves between us and danger fit and healthy. I needed this ransom and I needed it soon.