The Queen’s Gambit

The Queen's Gambit Cover
Part of the Rogue Queen series:
  • The Queen's Gambit

When the Quint Confederacy and the Kos Empire went to war—again—Queen Samara wisely kept her Rogue Coalition out of the conflict. But staying neutral in a galactic war doesn't pay the bills, not when both sides refuse to trade with neutral sectors.

With her people on the brink of starvation, Samara hatches a daring plan to snatch the kidnapped Kos Emperor from the Quint mercenaries holding him. The Kos Empire will pay a fortune for their emperor's return, enough to feed the Coalition's citizens while they wait for the return to a begrudging peace.

But when her plan goes sideways, Samara finds herself evading Quint mercenaries with the very man she intends to capture. And the more time she spends with Valentin Kos, the more she realizes that he's not the coldly indifferent villain she imagined. Torn between duty and desire, Samara must decide if saving her people is worth giving up the one thing she's always wanted.

Published:
Publisher: NYLA
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Excerpt:

CHAPTER ONE

I lowered my spaceship’s cargo ramp and slipped into the night with the ease of long practice. The ship vanished as soon as I stepped away, hidden by the best stealth money could buy.

Darkness and I had always been friends, but something in the air tonight set my teeth on edge. After a few minutes, I stopped in the deep shadows cast by a partially collapsed wall and surveyed the building in front of me.

Twenty stories tall and one of the few structures still standing after years of war, the former office tower loomed like a shadowy monolith out of the sea of rubble surrounding it. My sense of unease grew.

The building looked as dark as a tomb. I would’ve expected at least a few lights, especially in the top floors. Had they blacked out all of the windows or was I operating on bad information?

Or perhaps the Quint Confederacy knew I was coming.

The Kos Empire and the Quint Confederacy had been locked in an intermittent territorial war for the last three decades. The fighting usually stayed at the intergalactic border between the disputed territories, but sometimes it spilled over to distant, unimportant planets like this one. Nowhere in the universe was entirely safe.

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I had hoped that Valentin Kos, the newly crowned Kos Emperor, would end the war, but so far all he’d managed to do was get captured. At least his stupidity would feed my people for years, once I rescued him and then ransomed him back to the Kos Empire for a hefty fee.

I continued scanning the building while I waited. A few minutes later, a distinctive tickle in the back of my mind indicated an incoming neural link---my contact was right on time. I mentally activated the link and asked, Jax, are you there?

The mental response came across as a garbled burst of static then silence. I waited as patiently as I could---which wasn’t very---to see if Jax could fix the link. A security specialist who had yet to find a system he couldn’t crack, I needed his eyes on the building’s video feeds or I’d be going in blind.

More static crackled across the link.

I took the extra time to do a final check of my equipment. I wore a stretchy black stealth suit that would help me slip past any perimeter security that Jax missed. My braided black hair disappeared in the dark and most of my light brown skin was hidden by the stealth suit. My uncovered face would be visible in low light, but it was a liability I had learned to mitigate because I hated camouflage paint.

Soft leather boots hugged my calves and protected my feet but kept my footsteps light. A belt around my waist secured a holstered electroshock pistol, an extra magazine of stun rounds, and a sheathed ceramic knife. I would’ve preferred more weapons, but tonight I traveled light in the name of stealth.

Adrenaline dripped through my veins. I used the familiar high to sharpen my focus and push away the anxiety I’d been feeling. I couldn’t afford any mistakes tonight.

Then the top floor of the building lit up with plasma rifle fire.

Jax! Something is going on. Should I hold or go? I mentally asked across the link. More static responded. Jackson Leopold Russell, get this link working and answer me right now or so help me...

Sorry, sorry! There’s no reason to bust out my full name, Samara Rani, he said irritably, emphasizing my name. His faint mental voice continued, I’m here. Mostly. Our neural link is being jammed. Give me five minutes to get it sorted.

I don’t have five minutes, I said. There’s a shit-ton of plasma fire happening on the top floor and I’m already two minutes behind schedule. Do you have the vid feeds?

Only of the outside, he said. Your path to the building is clear. The inside feeds are proving tricky.

Get eyes on the inside or kiss the rest of your contract money goodbye, I warned.

He grumbled but didn’t reply.

I started toward the building, carefully working my way along the path Jax and I had planned. Cloud cover blocked the light from the moon and stars, forcing me to rely on the specialty contact lenses I wore. They automatically adjusted to the dark, enabling basic night-vision. I could see, but only in shades of greenish gray. I couldn’t afford the ocular implants that would let me see in full color in the dark.

I couldn’t afford many of the things that would make this job more doable and less crazy stupid.

I paused at the side door and took a deep breath. The easy part was over. If I went through this door, I was committed. No one knew I was here; I could leave and no one would be the wiser.

Except my people would still be starving.

Decision made, I gripped the door handle and pulled. The door didn’t budge. Jax! The side door is locked. Remind me why I’m paying you a mountain of credits for this?

Because I’m the best, he said. I heard the lock click. Try it now. You’re clear to the elevator.

I’m taking the stairs, I said.

Up twenty stories? Samara, you’re crazy.

Maybe, I agreed. But an elevator was a trap waiting to happen, either en route or once it hit the top. At least with a stairwell I had more than one exit path.

You’re clear to the stairs, Jax said. I’m still trying to get the rest of the vid feeds. You’ll be blind in the stairwell.

I’ll take my chances, I said.

The stairwell was as dark as the rest of the building. I cleared the stairs one floor at a time, moving as quickly as I dared. I didn’t run into anyone else, but all of the doors I tried were locked. If I needed an escape, I’d either have to get Jax to unlock them or retreat all the way to the ground.

On the twentieth-floor landing, I paused. Jax, I’m at the top. Do you have video?

A burst of static blasted across my mind just as the building shook, rocked by an explosion I could feel but not see. Jax, what the hell is going on in there?

It’s chaos, he said, his voice staticky. It seems Kos soldiers are attempting to retrieve their emperor. And the Quint Confederacy mercenaries are resisting, naturally.

I suppressed the urge to bang my head against the wall. Couldn’t the Kos Empire have waited one freaking day? I needed that ransom money.

Jax continued, But the Kos soldiers seem to have underestimated the Quint forces, again. They’re getting their asses handed to them.

Send me the vid feeds so I can see what I’m up against, I said.

No can do, I’m afraid. The whole area is actively jamming neural links. It’s all I can do to keep our voice channel open.

I pinched the bridge of my nose and thought patient thoughts. It didn’t help. Follow my progress and let me know if I’m about to walk into a squad of soldiers. You are capable of that much at least, right?

No need to get snippy, Sammy dear, Jax said in a saccharine tone guaranteed to enrage.

It worked. It’s Samara or Queen Rani to you. And this is not snippy. When I get snippy, people die, I said.

Oh, so you’re still pretending to be queen of that uncouth group of heathens you call subjects?

The Rogue Coalition took in anyone tired of the fighting between the Kos Empire and the Quint Confederacy. And while it was true we had a higher-than-usual number of people with less-than-legal professions, they were vastly outnumbered by the influx of refugees, mostly women and children, who’d lost everything during the war.

Still, no one got to insult us without repercussions.

The Rogue Coalition named me their Queen and so their Queen I remain. Insult them again and you’ll get to see why they chose me. I let deadly promise sink into my voice. It would be my pleasure to enlighten you. Personally.

I hadn’t set out to become Queen, but now that I was, I took my job seriously. My people had given me the power to decide their fate.

And the crushing responsibility to ensure their health and safety.

Jax’s voice spluttered across the neural link. Geez, it was a joke. Lighten up.

It wasn’t a joke, and it wasn’t funny. Can we get back to business? I asked.

Neural links weren’t always good about transmitting nonverbal communication but I caught his huff just fine. Fine, he grumbled. The hall outside the stairwell is clear for the next thirty seconds.

I pulled out my electroshock pistol and eased open the stairwell door. The hallway was lit with intermittent emergency lights that cast weird shadows in the smoke and dust swirling through the air. Visibility was shit, even with the help of my lenses. I turned right down the hall.

Samara, what are you doing? Jax shouted in my mind. Go left. Left!

I memorized the floor plan. Left is a dead end. Are you trying to get me killed?

Left was a dead end, but that was before the Kos soldiers blew a hole in it. If you keep going right, you’re going to run into a squad of Quint mercenaries. He paused. But, by all means, keep going. I have popcorn standing by.

I changed direction and headed left. Fine, left it is. Which room?

First one on the right after the stairwell, Jax said. Incoming!

His warning came just after I’d already spotted the two soldiers ahead of me. I didn’t have time to figure out which side they worked for and it really didn’t matter---I needed to rescue Emperor Kos myself. I shot them both before they had time to draw their plasma pistols. The stun rounds sent them to the floor. They’d be out of commission for the next ten minutes at least.

Wow, nice shooting, Jax said.

I grunted in acknowledgment. Any other surprises I should be aware of?

Two more ahead. They’ll detect you before you make the door.

Seriously, Jax? I asked. Stun rounds don’t grow on trees, you know. This was supposed to be a stealth mission. I’m not loaded for full combat.

Suck it up, princess. You’re the one that went charging in without waiting for information.

I sighed and crept down the hall. Two figures appeared through the haze. I shot them both and they slumped to the ground without a sound.

Did you just shoot them in the back? Jax asked. That’s hardly fair.

Truth be told, I couldn’t see them well enough to know which way they were facing. But their lack of reaction made more sense if they had been facing away. I don’t have time to play fair, and I wouldn’t even if I did.

I stepped over the soldiers’ bodies. The door on the right stood open. Air currents pushed smoke and dust out into the hall.

That’s your door, Jax said. As far as I can tell, the room is clear, but some of the cameras are out.

I eased into the room, sweeping for enemies. Chunks of debris littered the area. Dust and smoke swirled on the breeze coming through the gaping hole in the side of the building.

The Kos soldiers did this?

Yes, Jax said.

The explosion had also blasted a hole through the floor and part of the wall in the back of the room---Jax was right, this was no longer a dead end. The Kos soldiers must’ve expected to be long gone before the blast because it could’ve taken out the whole floor.

Where is the Emperor?

You want the good news or the bad news? Jax asked. I growled across the neural link and he continued, Okay, okay. The good news is the Quint mercenaries stashed him close by.

And the bad news? I asked, already dreading what he was going to say.

Well, the bad news is that the only path to him leads you right through the fire zone between the Quint mercs and the remaining Kos soldiers. How fast are you?

Many years ago, I had paid a small fortune for biological augments that made me stronger and faster, but even so, I wasn’t that fast. I can’t dodge plasma pulses, Jax. And they won’t be using stun rounds. Find a way around.

There’s nothing. He dropped into silence. Wait, look down, is that a hole in the floor? Can you see the crawlspace?

I peered into the hole. The blast had revealed a narrow utility crawlspace between this floor and the one below. Yes, I can see it, I said.

Do you have any breaching charges? he asked.

No. Stealth mission, remember?

You’re killing me, he groaned. No choice, you’re going to have to go through the middle. It’s a straight shot. I will unlock the door. It has a sensor, so it’ll open as soon as you get close. I’ll lock it behind you to give you time to free the Emperor and plan your escape.

Seriously, that’s your grand plan? Run for my life through an active fire zone?

If you have a better idea, I’m all ears. But based on what I’m seeing, you have about three minutes before the last of the Kos soldiers are wiped out and every Quint merc converges on the Emperor.

Shit. I couldn’t take out a fortified contingent of Quint mercs on my best day, even if I was loaded for combat and had a guardian angel sitting on my shoulder. If they made it to the emperor before I did, I could kiss the ransom money goodbye.

How are we going to get out? Surprise only works once, I said.

His room connects out the back. I can unlock the doors all the way to the balcony, then lock them behind you to buy you some time.

Couldn’t I get in that way?

You could, but you’d still have to go through the Quint mercs to get there, Jax said. They have the other hallway completely blockaded and there’s no cover. The smoke is mostly on this side of the building.

I can’t believe I’m actually considering this, I said. How many soldiers are left?

A couple dozen Quint and five Kos. Half of them are between you and the Emperor. I suggest you move fast.

I peeked through the hole in the wall. According to the floor plan, it should be a large open room. Red pulses from the plasma guns lit up in the distance but thanks to the weird light refraction through the smoke, I couldn’t tell how far away the soldiers actually were.

Two meters to your right is the path through the room that leads straight to the door where the Emperor is held. The path is a lighter color than the rest of the floor. I think it’s marble.

Where are the soldiers? I asked.

On the far side of the room. The Quint mercs are keeping the Kos soldiers pinned down away from the door. You’ll only be in their field of fire for a few seconds.

If I was smart, I would retrace my steps and disappear into the night. But it had taken weeks to track the Emperor’s location and I didn’t have the money to pay informants a second time. If I walked away, the Rogue Coalition would starve.

Fuck.

I ducked through the hole in the wall and found the path right where Jax said it would be. Let me know when you’ve got the door unlocked, I said.

It’s ready when you are. I suggest you go sooner than later because another Kos soldier just fell.

I sprinted through the smoke, thinking invisible thoughts. Plasma pulses lit up in front of me but I didn’t slow down. A door loomed out of the darkness, close enough that I thought I would hit it.

The door slid open just as I was bracing for impact. Momentum carried me into the room, and agony arced up my spine as stun rounds slammed into my body. My muscles seized; I hit the ground and slid.

A trap. I’d just run face-first into a fucking trap. I couldn’t move my body, not even to speak, but the neural link still worked. Jax, please explain why there are two squads of Quint mercenaries in the room that supposedly held the Emperor, I said, my mental voice eerily calm.

Sorry, doll, he said. They pay better than you do. Though, to be fair, Emperor Kos really is in there with you.

When I get out of here, you’re a dead man, Jackson Russell, I promised.

His laugh echoed across the link. Good luck with that. Enjoy captivity, Queen Rani.

He cut the link before I could respond.

CHAPTER TWO

Two Quint mercenaries picked me up by my upper arms. My body dangled uselessly between them, caught in the thrall of the stun rounds. I recovered faster than most, but it would still be too little, too late.

I attempted a neural link out, but without Jax’s intervention, all of my attempts at long-distance links failed. Even my ship’s signal flickered in and out, and it was hidden nearby. The only steady link options were a few people in the room, but no way was I initiating a link with an enemy soldier.

The soldiers dumped me in a chair. They cuffed my hands behind my back, then secured them to the chair. They also secured my ankles to the chair legs.

I looked far more delicate than I was, which tended to make people underestimate me, but the Quint mercs weren’t taking any chances. Jax must have warned them about my augments.

That traitorous bastard was going to die slowly.

My head lolled on my neck and I left it hanging even as feeling crept back into my body. I needed every advantage I could get because I doubted the Quint mercs just wanted to share a nice cup of tea.

A man wearing fatigues and heavy boots stepped in front of me. He buried his fingers in the top of my braided hair and jerked my head up. He was older, grizzled, with reddish-brown hair graying at the temples. I didn’t recognize him, but that didn’t mean much. The Confederacy employed more people than I’d met in my lifetime.

“We meet at last, Samara Rani. The Rogue Queen---or is it the Scoundrel Queen?” he asked.

He seemed disappointed when I failed to rise to his baiting. I didn’t mind being called the Scoundrel Queen. If others thought we were just a bunch of rogues and scoundrels, the Rogue Coalition became a less appealing target. And anything that made others think twice before attacking us was okay with me.

“Doesn’t matter, I suppose,” he continued. “You walked in here like a lamb to the slaughter. You should’ve seen your face.” He laughed then leaned down to peer at me with a skeptical look. “Jax told us you were talented, but I’m not so sure. Maybe he wasn't talking about your intelligence, huh?”

I’d heard worse---much worse, delivered much more cleverly. I didn’t bother with a reply. Eventually he’d get around to why they’d grabbed me and then we’d be getting somewhere.

“Commander Adams,” a younger male voice said from somewhere behind me.

The man in front of me straightened with an impatient look. Now I had a name to go with his face. He didn’t know it yet, but his ass was mine. I smothered my smile.

“Sorry to interrupt, sir,” the young man continued, “but I thought you’d want to know the last of the Kos soldiers have fallen.”

Commander Adams flicked his eyes over my shoulder. A vicious grin tugged on the corners of his mouth. “Your men are dead, Emperor,” he said. “More lives you could’ve spared if only you’d cooperate.”

“And let you enslave the rest of my people? I think not,” a surprisingly sonorous voice responded.

Holy shit, Jax hadn’t been lying---the Emperor really was in the room with me. I resisted the urge to crane my neck around and look for him.

The commander sneered then turned his attention back to me. “Now, where were we, my dear?” he asked.

It took all of my considerable willpower not to say something provoking. I had no doubt that this evening would end in violence, but there was no need to hasten it along quite yet.

“Tell me about the Rogue Coalition,” Adams said, his hand still locked in my hair. When I didn’t respond, he tightened his grip until pain blossomed across my scalp. “We can do this the easy way or the painful way. Me, I prefer the painful way.”

His sneer made me itch to punch him. I wondered how fast his story would change if I freed myself. I very much doubted he would prefer the painful way if I was the one dishing it out---bullies didn’t like it when the tables turned.

“Does threatening an innocent woman make you feel like a man?” Emperor Kos asked.

I briefly closed my eyes. While I appreciated the sentiment, I would’ve appreciated it more if he’d kept his mouth shut. An angry man was an unpredictable man, and I needed Commander Adams to stick to the script: press me for details, try a little physical persuasion, and, when that failed, lock me up somewhere to recover until the next session.

Commander Adams’s grip tightened as he wrenched my head around. I could see Emperor Kos out of the corner of my eye. His dark hair was matted to his head and bruises shadowed a handsome face.

The Emperor had on a gray shirt and black pants, and he was secured to a chair of his own. Hopefully the Quint mercs had only inflicted superficial wounds or escaping would be more difficult.

Adams said, “This innocent woman is Queen Samara Rani of the Rogue Coalition and a criminal in her own right. She’s the very woman you yourself have a bounty on. Her pirates have stolen cargo from Quint and Kos ships for nearly a year. You should be happy someone finally caught her for you.”

Emperor Kos opened his mouth to respond, so I took drastic measures. “If you two need some privacy while you measure your dicks, I’d be happy to step outside,” I said.

Commander Adams jerked my head back and glared down at me. “Where is your ship?”

I gave him my most patronizing smile. “What ship?”

I saw the slap coming a kilometer away but couldn’t do anything about it. Pain blazed through my cheek and scalp as the sudden movement pulled against the hand in my hair. Even left-handed, the Commander packed a wallop.

“Where are the rest of your soldiers?” Adams asked.

When I didn’t respond, he hit me with a closed fist. I let the pain flow through me. I had his name; I had his face. I just had to endure until I could escape.

I mentally pulled back. When he hammered a fist into my stomach, it still hurt like a sonofabitch, but it was a distant pain.

I sighed in blissful relief when, a long while later, I slipped into the welcoming arms of unconsciousness.


I awoke to a cacophony of aches and pains. Commander Adams had worked me over, but he’d stopped short of inflicting debilitating damage.

My hands were still secured behind my back but now I was on my side on the floor. My left arm felt leaden, hopefully because I’d slept on it and not because my shoulder was dislocated or worse.

A soft sound nearby snapped me back to the situation at hand. I kept my eyes closed and feigned sleep. The air stirred as someone leaned over me. A hand touched my jaw and I struck, lunging up head first. My skull cracked against something hard and the person above me fell back with a deep groan.

I twisted around and kicked out with my bound legs. I hit something soft and the groan turned into a grunt of pain. Based on the timbre of the voice, it was likely a man, but all I could see were legs and feet outlined in greenish gray. We were in a pitch-black room but they hadn’t taken my contact lenses. I pulled back for another kick.

“Queen Rani, stop, I’m not your enemy,” the man snapped. He rolled away and sat up. “Your breathing changed. I was checking if you were awake. Clearly, you are.”

A dark smear of blood ran from his nose. His face was bruised even more than before, but Emperor Kos was easy to recognize. Clean away the blood and bruises and the man would be gorgeous---the result of a millennia-long dynasty and the best genetics money and power could buy.

The Quint mercs had untied the Emperor’s arms. His legs were still shackled. He held himself stiffly, but that could be because I’d just kicked him.

Emperor Kos watched me with wary suspicion, proving he could see. His eyes didn’t glow with the telltale sheen of night-vision contact lenses, so he had some sort of augmentation, likely biological. People as rich as the Emperor didn’t bother with mechanical ocular implants.

“How long have I been out?” I asked as I levered myself up into a sitting position. The mercs had taken my belt and weapons but left me in the stealth suit and boots.

“Two hours, maybe,” he said. “Without being able to connect to the net, it’s hard to tell.”

I mentally reached for the net and came up empty. This room blocked all signals---I couldn’t even see my ship. Without the constant background noise of an active net connection my mind seemed too quiet, too still.

I had trained to deal with the abrupt loss of connection and could also disconnect for particularly delicate jobs. But for normal people, forcibly cutting off their net connection amounted to psychological torture.

“How are you, Emperor Kos?” I asked. “Any injuries I should be aware of?” Is the lack of a net connection making you crazy?

“Please, call me Valentin. I only have minor injuries so far, though I think you might’ve cracked a rib. Why are you here?” he asked.

“I’m here for you,” I said.

“My advisors hired the Rogue Queen to rescue me?” he asked skeptically.

“If you want something found in this universe, I can find it,” I said, dodging the question. “And you might as well call me Samara. ‘Queen Rani’ makes me feel far fancier than I am and ‘the Rogue Queen’ is a mouthful.”

“Did you lead my soldiers here to die?” he asked.

“No, they managed that bit of incompetence on their own. No one told me that Kos soldiers were attacking tonight. My mission was entirely separate.”

Pins and needles stabbed my left arm as the blood flow resumed. First things first, I needed my hands in front of me. Thankfully, these cuffs had a spreader bar designed to keep my hands separated to make lock picking more difficult. It meant I could slide my arms under my butt rather than having to dislocate my shoulder to pull them over my head.

It took some ungraceful wiggling, but I managed to get my hands in front of me. Emperor Kos looked far more impressed than the move deserved.

A look at the cuffs proved what I’d suspected---they were an older style that many units still used because they were harder to pick. Of course, the cuffs had been around long enough that people who made a habit of getting put into them had also had plenty of time to practice getting out of them, myself included.

I needed to have a plan before I took them off or the Quint soldiers would just slap me back in them. And a lot of that plan depended on how helpful---and useful---Emperor Kos would be.

“How long have you been here?” I asked. “Do they normally keep you in this cell?”

“I’ve been moved three times since they grabbed me. We’ve been here a little over a week. Last night was the second time I’ve been out of this room since we arrived.”

The light mental tickle of a waiting neural link took me by surprise. I glanced sharply at Emperor Kos who nodded very slightly. My neural link connection was protected by the strongest defenses I could buy or build and wasn’t open to unknown connections---he shouldn’t have been able to contact me without permission.

In fact, he shouldn’t even be able to see my link, much less connect to it.

I double-checked all of my mental firewalls, but I had a feeling that he was playing on an entirely different level. However, if we wanted any hope of escaping, neural link transmission was the best way to communicate secretly.

The link connected with an unusual burst of static. I’m encrypting the signal, Emperor Kos said through the link, to prevent eavesdropping.

Neural links were heavily encrypted by default, so he must be adding an additional layer of protection. The fact that he could---and thought that he needed to---made me question just how secure these links were in the first place.

The companies that handled the required brain implants guaranteed that their encryption was unbreakable. Now I wasn’t so sure, even though Jax had never managed to break the encryption and he was the best hacker I knew.

You sound like Emperor Kos, but one can’t be too careful. Touch your right eyebrow with your left pinky, I said.

He raised said eyebrow but followed my instructions. Samara, I told you to call me Valentin, he said.

I ignored the request. The intimacy of a first name made him real, made him a person and not just a payday. It was a complication I didn’t need.

My head throbbed. I rubbed my forehead and used the movement to pull a pin from my hair and palm it. I had pins sewn into the seams of my stealth suit, but if the mercs were going to make it even easier, I wasn’t going to complain.

I pulled my knees up and rested my forehead against them. The move was calculated to make me look small, harmless, and hopeless. It would also make it less apparent that we were linking.

I peeked at Emperor Kos. His frown smoothed out into a neutral expression when he caught me looking. So I wasn’t the only one plotting. How did you link without my permission?

State secret, he said with a grin. Even bruised and with a busted lip, his grin hit me like a meteor. I sucked in a surprised breath as unexpected heat pooled low in my belly. Can you get out of the cuffs? he asked.

The question returned my attention to thoughts of escape. Yes. How often do they check on you? Do you know anything about the guard rotations?

They turn the lights on in the morning and someone brings me breakfast. Some days Commander Adams tries to get me to talk, but mostly it’s just a random guard bringing food. Someone also brings me dinner. Other than that, the door doesn’t open. The lights go out at night, and there is a camera in the corner.

I couldn’t wait for the guards to open the door on schedule. They’d be expecting an escape attempt. Which meant I needed to provide them a reason to open the door early. Something urgent.

A plan began to form. It was risky, but everything was risky at this point. I let it simmer in my subconscious and started picking the lock on the left cuff. It was tricky with my arms wedged between my chest and legs, but it kept the cuff out of sight of the cameras. I returned to my questions.

“Any luck linking out while you’ve been here?” I asked aloud to keep the guards guessing.

Emperor Kos followed my lead. “I can’t connect even when the door is open.” He continued across the link, I tried last night but although the block was lighter, I’m not sure the message got out.

The mercenaries were being unusually careful with Emperor Kos. Most Quint mercs were hotheaded and impulsive, but this squad was a higher caliber. The Quint Confederacy wanted something from the Emperor. Badly. But what?

Whatever it was, they wanted him kept alive, which was ideal for me.

The handcuff unlocked. I left it around my wrist and carefully wrapped my arms around my legs until I could reach the lock on the leg shackle. The shackle was clamped to my ankle over the thin leather of my boots. I had to assume the guards were onto me at this point, so I moved quickly.

Do you have an escape plan? Kos asked.

Yes. It goes like this: step one, escape, I said. I didn’t add that step two was ransom him and step three was profit---he’d find that out soon enough.

I hoped for something a little more concrete, he said. I tried to overpower a guard and got this, he pointed to his bruised face, for my effort. I think they are augmented.

I would be more surprised if the soldiers, especially the guards, weren’t augmented. It wasn’t an impossible situation, not quite, but it was far from ideal. We needed to escape tonight, while the mercs were still recovering from the Kos soldiers’ attack. If we failed tonight it could take days or weeks to find another opening to escape, time I didn’t have.

The leg shackled unlocked. Showtime. I let a good dose of crazy slip into my smile. Emperor Kos flinched back. “You thought I was here to rescue you,” I said. “That’s adorable.”

He frowned. “But---”

I cut him off. “Your brother sends his regards,” I said.

With that, I attacked.

COLLAPSE