When I became Queen, I took over the former base commander’s house. It had one floor above ground as well as two below ground. The lowest floor was on the same level as the rest of the base, so it became a public space. People who needed to talk to me or just wanted to hang out could come and go as they pleased.
I’d had my bedroom above ground until the rationing started and I could no longer justify heating the whole floor just so I could have a window. When I’d moved my personal rooms to the middle floor, most of the stuff that had been stored there had moved to other storage locations. But because someone always needed something, I had a supply closet of spare clothes.
We took the private stairs up to my rooms, bypassing the public area entirely. I stopped on the landing for the middle floor with Ari and Valentin. Malcolm sent two soldiers up to the next landing, while he and the third soldier waited below.
While I didn’t mind if Valentin saw the public parts of Arx, I’d prefer it if he didn’t have a detailed mental map of my personal space. I turned to him. His expression was distant and he’d been so complacent that he had to be focusing on a neural link. “Wait here,” I said. He barely acknowledged me.
I glanced at Ari. She nodded and leaned against the stairwell wall. Standing straight, she was as tall as Valentin, and they would make a striking couple. Luckily for me, Ari’s wife would have something to say about that, and Stella Mueller was not a woman to cross lightly.
I let myself into my rooms the old-fashioned way with a handprint and face scan. Usually I’d connect through the net, but I was still offline. I wasn’t entirely sure that a net connection was safe from Valentin, but I’d have to risk it eventually because I needed to check the news. And I expected the Kos Empire to reply sooner rather than later.
Digging through the supply closet, I found a few items that looked big enough to fit Valentin. It wasn’t unusual for newcomers to wear a coat, hat, and scarf until they got used to the chill, so he wouldn’t stand out.
While I had access to my closet, I took the time to put on a base layer under my shirt. The cold didn’t usually bother me, but thanks to the blood loss, I’d felt it more on the way over. I needed to rehydrate as soon as possible, but until then, there was no reason to be miserable.
I took a deep breath and tried to calm my thoughts. Letting Valentin out of the cell could either be a grave mistake or a great blessing. I’d like to think I made the decision rationally, but I had the sneaking suspicion that emotion played into it more than I would prefer.
I sympathized with Valentin’s desire to be out of a cage, but more than that, I wanted him to see that I wasn’t a liar. It remained to be seen what he would do with the information.
A minute later, I was as ready as I was ever going to be. I gathered up the extra clothes and returned to the stairwell. No one had moved.
A faint frown marred Valentin’s brow, but his unfocused expression meant that it was likely from a neural link or net connection. I hoped our com system was giving him as much trouble as it usually gave me.
“Stop linking and put these on,” I said. I held out the clothes I’d found.
He flashed me a sly grin but reached to take the clothes and put them on. With the old coat, hat pulled low, and scarf wrapped around his neck, he was less Emperor Valentin and more homeless refugee. Good enough.
We started down the stairs and the two soldiers from the upper landing trailed us down.
“We have to lose the security detail or people will know something’s up,” I told Ari when we reached the bottom floor landing.
“I don’t think that’s wise,” she said.
“I agree,” Malcolm said.
“Noted,” I said. “Malcolm, you’re with us. Put your other three soldiers at the market exits, but don’t make it obvious. If they see Emperor Kos without one of us, they are authorized to shoot him.”
Ari rolled her eyes in exasperation, but didn’t offer any further comments. Malcolm gave his soldiers orders in a low whisper. Good to know that they were following my advice about neural links. My other citizens would still be using links, but Valentin would have his work cut out for him if he wanted to listen in on all of them.
The three soldiers left and we gave them a few minutes to get into position. While we waited, Ari caught me up on the public news that I’d missed while I’d been gone. The private news would have to wait until we didn’t have Valentin in the audience.
Ari said we were burning through our food even faster than expected. The advisory council had approved stricter rationing, effective immediately. We had crews out looking for supplies, but none of them had solid targets yet.
“How did people take the news?” I asked.
Ari shrugged. “Nobody was thrilled, but there wasn’t too much outcry. They know you’re doing everything in your power. Everyone is pitching in where they can.”
The Rogue Coalition had its problems, just like any large group of people, but when the going got tough, the tough got deadly determined. And after I made it abundantly, painfully clear that I wouldn’t tolerate people taking advantage of one another, they decided that their energy was better spent trying to figure out how to stick it to Kos and Quint.
But that goodwill would only take us so far. Once starvation truly set in, the Coalition would collapse into a horde of wolves that only looked out for number one. At that point, there was nothing I could do except try to direct the fury away from the most vulnerable.
“Okay, let’s go see what I can do to help,” I said.
The rest of the chapter will be posted later this week.
And now might also be a good time to set expectations. :) Never fear, I will get you to a HFN, but Samara and Valentin are likely going to end up as friends/allies this novella, not a solid couple. I am planning to make this a series, so their relationship will build next novella.