Occupying the former military base’s central parade grounds, the market was the largest communal gathering place in Arx. The panels overhead made it appear like we were under bright blue skies with slowly drifting white clouds, but only the front half were on.
A few solid buildings had sprung up—the bakery and general store, for example—but mostly small market stalls leaned against one another, built with whatever was handy. In the distance, under the dark half of the ceiling, shadows clung to the walls and narrow pathways.
It reminded me of the back-alley markets on the planet I’d grown up on.
Many of the stalls were empty now, but the market still buzzed with activity. People might not have much money, but that didn’t prevent them from getting together to gossip and barter.
Zita O’Neill caught sight of us first. “Samara, you’re back!” she said. She pulled me into a hug and kissed the air next to my cheek. Then she stepped back and glanced behind me. Her smile turned coy. “And you brought Lieutenant Peters, how lovely.”
A matronly woman in her forties with red ringlets and a ready smile, Zita ran Arx’s main bakery. She’d been a fixture in Arx from the beginning, but these days she made simple bread for rations and none of the fancy little desserts she loved.
I’d been in and out of Arx for the past month tracking down Valentin, so I hadn’t seen Zita for weeks. She, too, had lost more weight. Her cheeks had lost the last of their cherubic roundness and it made her look worn and tired, like she’d aged five years in five weeks.
“Hello, Zita,” I said. “I missed you. Did you keep everyone out of trouble while I was gone?”
She laughed. “You’re the only one who has the power to work that particular miracle, but I did my best.” She paused then looked surprised. “You’re not accepting neural links?” she asked quietly.
“Not right now,” I said.
She nodded, then leaned in and whispered, “I snuck the Dovers’ girl some extra bread. She’s pregnant but won’t tell her pa, so she can’t get the extra rations.”
I appreciated her discretion, but Ari could hear a person breathing two rooms away thanks to her augments, and she wasn’t the only one with augmented senses. Secrets rarely stayed secret in Arx.
“That’s fine,” I said. “I will check on her after I’m done here.” I’d watched Lily Dovers grow up. She was barely eighteen. If she’d been forced, I’d make her assailant a very public, very gruesome example of why trying that shit in my sector was mortally stupid. I let a lot of things slide, but I had a zero tolerance policy on rape, murder, and domestic abuse.
“Do you have time for tea?” Zita asked.
“I wish I did, but I have to show Tino here around,” I said with a wave at Valentin.
Zita barely spared him a glance. Outsiders weren’t shunned, largely because everyone here had been an outsider at one point or another, but they weren’t welcomed with open arms, either. “Come back when you have time,” she said to me.
“I will,” I promised.
“Tino?” Valentin asked softly when we were far enough away.
I was surprised he was paying enough attention to catch the name. “I didn’t disguise you just to shout your real name to everyone nearby. Valentin immediately calls to mind the Kos Emperor, an association we don’t want.”
Then there was no more time to talk because we were to the next group of people. As they crowded around us, I latched onto Valentin’s right arm so we wouldn’t be separated—and so he wouldn’t try anything. Ari and Malcolm stayed close for the same reason.
Arx had nearly 8,000 permanent residents and another 2,000 newcomers who were waiting to transition to another settlement. I met each and every person who came to the city. This gave them the chance to ask questions and me the chance to lay down the rules and see their faces.
Thanks to some quirk in my brain, I had excellent facial memory, so I recognized everyone around us even if I couldn’t remember all of their names. And all of their faces were leaner than the last time I’d seen them.
As we moved through the market, most of the questions were about the new ration levels: did I know about them, how long would we be at this level, what was I doing to fix it. I answered them patiently: yes, I don’t know, I’m working on it.
A young mother clutching an infant hovered on the edge of the crowd. She was fairly new to Arx, and she’d lost a dramatic amount of weight in the short time she’d been here. “Excuse me,” I said to the people around me. Her eyes widened as I moved towards her but she stood her ground. Smart woman.
“Walk with me,” I said to her. “What’s your name again?”
Valentin was a silent shadow at my side, but I didn’t want to let him out of my sight, so he’d just have to come along for the ride.
“It’s Patricia, um, your highness,” she stammered.
I laughed. “Samara is fine,” I said. “We don’t stand on ceremony around here too much. What about your baby?”
“His name is Joseph,” she said with obvious pride.
“It’s a good name,” I said. When we’d put a little distance between us and the crowd, I stopped and turned to her. “Why aren’t you eating your rations?”
She looked me straight in the eyes and lied. “I am,” she said.
I raised an eyebrow and waited.
She looked away and blushed. “My little girl is always hungry. Sometimes I share my rations with her.”
“You’ve lost too much weight. If you keep this up, you won’t be able to nurse Joseph, and where will that leave him? You’re to get double rations for two weeks, tell Zita and Eddie and they’ll confirm it with me. Eat every bite of your own rations—no sharing. I expect to see a marked improvement in your weight the next time we talk.”
She ducked her head. “Yes, my lady,” she said.
“If your daughter is hungry all the time, get her checked in medical. If nothing is wrong, come and see me and we’ll see if we need to adjust the children’s rations.”
Patricia looked up with hope in her eyes. “You would do that?” she asked. At my nod, she bowed deeply and I wondered at her background. “Thank you, Queen Samara. I will not forget this.” She hurried off, as if afraid that I’d change my mind if she lingered.
“Want me to let Zita and Eddie know?” Ari asked.
“Please,” I said. “And I want someone to check on Patricia in three days. Make sure it really is her little girl that’s getting her rations.”
“I’ll have Imogen handle it. She’s good with people,” Ari said.
“Do you always take this much interest in your citizens’ lives or is this a show for me?” Valentin asked. His expression had been carefully neutral as we’d made our way through the market.
“I wish it was a show,” Ari grumbled. “Do you know how many times I’ve heard complaints about rations? About ninety billion. They’re fucking adults; they shouldn’t whine like children.”
“Arietta, be nice,” I warned. I’d heard this argument before. But if bitching to me about rations made people feel better, then I would endure it to keep the peace.
“She’s right, you know. They’re adults. You shouldn’t let them walk all over you. They’ll lose respect for you,” Valentin said.
“So, according to you, giving them orders and then ignoring them is the way to build respect. No wonder your Empire isn’t in a hurry to retrieve you. I’ve been Queen for five years and in five years, I’ve had exactly zero coup attempts. You’ve been Emperor for what, eleven months? How many attempted coups have you had?”
Valentin refused to answer which was answer enough.
“It seems to me,” I said, “that if anyone here should be giving another person leadership advice, it should be me teaching you. I’m available any time at quite a reasonable rate.”