Arietta Mueller, my best friend and head of security, trailed along behind me, grumbling under her breath. Tall, with blond hair and pale skin, Ari was gorgeous. She was impossible to ignore even when she wasn’t audibly calling attention to herself.
Ari was still trying to get me to change my mind about leaving her behind. She had waged her campaign for the last two weeks with the ruthless determination that made her a terror on the battlefield. She’d even gotten her wife involved, and Dr. Stella Mueller had long ago perfected her intimidation tactics. Unruly patients didn’t stand a chance against her.
Despite everything, I held firm. I was going to be gone for at least two weeks, maybe longer. I owed Valentin four weeks. I was hoping to split it into two trips, but if things were going exceedingly well—or poorly—I might need to stay the whole month this trip. I needed Ari and Stella here to keep an eye on things. I had other advisors, but none I trusted as much as my closest friends.
When we reached an empty section of hallway, I stopped and turned to Ari. “Spit it out,” I said.
“You’ve been grumbling for the last ten minutes. What’s up? Are you concerned about Imogen?” I asked. Imogen was the only guard I was taking with me. I could generally protect myself, but I’d decided a second set of eyes in hostile territory might be a good idea. “I thought she was your first choice.”
“I should be going with you, Samara,” she said.
I took a deep breath and tried to remember that I would be just as annoying if our roles were reversed.
She continued, “I can’t shake the feeling that something is going to go wrong. It’s making me crazy. I’m sorry, I know I’m being a pain in the ass.”
“I’m uneasy, too,” I confessed. In order to help Valentin ferret out who was loyal and who wasn’t, I would be inserting myself directly into the web of lies and treachery binding him and his court. “That’s why I want you here to look after things. You know I can take care of myself.”
She nodded in grumpy agreement. “I know. And I made Imogen promise to stick to you like glue, but I still don’t like it.”
“I know something that will cheer you up. My new clothes came in yesterday.”
Ari’s eyes lit up. She and Stella had strong-armed me into buying a new wardrobe for my trip. Apparently my usual utility pants and T-shirts didn’t scream royalty. I didn’t much care, but since I would be representing the Rogue Coalition while I was in Koan, I had capitulated. There was no reason to make my job harder than it needed to be.
“Fashion show in your suite?” she asked.
I laughed. “If you insist.”
Her gaze went distant for a second as she communicated with someone over a neural link. “Stella will meet us there in twenty minutes. Let’s go.”
We finished the circuit of Arx, then made our way back toward my suite. I stopped by the mess hall and made sure Eddie, our head chef, had everything he needed. He waved me off, but not before plying me with a savory hand pie. Now that we had money for food again, he was constantly trying to fatten us all up.
It had been six weeks since I’d rescued Valentin and earned enough money to pull the Rogue Coalition away from the brink of collapse. I hadn’t seen Valentin since his visit to Arx, but we’d chatted often.
Then, two weeks ago, he’d disappeared for three days. He’d tried to brush it off as a trip to the outer systems, but the news had been rampant with rumors of an attack. I did a little digging and found the kill contract. Someone still wanted Valentin dead, and I owed him four weeks of my time to help figure out who it was. It was time to pay that debt.
Ari and I climbed the stairs to my personal rooms. The former base commander’s house—now my house—had three levels, two underground and one above ground. When money had gotten tight, I’d moved into the middle level so we didn’t have to heat the above ground floor.
The icy surface of Trigon Three leeched heat from even the thickly insulated military structures some long-dead government had built. I’d considered moving back to the top level because I loved the outside view, but it seemed a little too extravagant when the memory of hunger still lingered.
Ari and I started pulling clothes from boxes, organizing them on my bed into various piles. A couple minutes later, Stella joined us. Stella was a few centimeters taller than me, with warm brown skin, long dark hair, and dark eyes that sparkled with hidden humor. She was as beautiful as her wife.
I was old enough to be secure about my own appearance. My face tended more toward cute than beautiful, but my petite build, light brown skin, and long dark hair gave me a delicate charm. I wasn’t in the same league as Ari and Stella, and that worked well for me. It was harder to blend in when every eye in the room was drawn to you.
Ari dropped the last empty box on the floor. Stella looked at the large pile of clothes with skepticism. “Is this all you ordered?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. “It should be more than enough, unless I stay the full four weeks this trip.” I’d ordered enough new clothes for three weeks of mix and matched outfits, plus a week of dinner dresses. If I ended up staying longer, I’d have to repeat a few daytime outfits in addition to the dresses.
“You really don’t know how an imperial court works, do you?” Stella asked. She shook her head wryly. “A courtier will go through this many clothes in a day or two.” She dug through the pile until she found the five dresses I’d ordered. It was three more dresses than I’d ever owned at once. “These are acceptable afternoon dresses, but what are you going to wear to dinner? Where are the other dresses you tried on?”
“Those are my dinner dresses,” I said. “The other dresses were too expensive. If Valentin’s advisors don’t like it, they can bite me.”
Stella glared at me. “You bought new clothes so they would take you seriously. If you wear one of these to dinner, they will laugh you out of the room.”
“I’d like to see them try,” I growled.
“Order the other dresses. Have them expressed to Koan. You can pick them up when you arrive. Trust me on this, Samara. Please.”
When Stella busted out her doctor glare in addition to the pleading, I knew I was sunk. “Fine,” I said. I mentally crossed my fingers. I could probably get away with one or two.
Stella frowned, as if she heard my thoughts. “All of them, Samara. I’m not even joking. You’re going to have enough to worry about without also having to worry about dinner dress.”
I looked to Ari for support but she just raised her hands and backed away. Smart woman.
“Fine,” I grumbled, reluctantly. “I will order the five dinner dresses we looked at before. But only if they can manage the same modifications in the allotted time.”
I’d had my new clothes custom tailored in technical fabrics that were hideously expensive. The fabric looked like a normal weave, but it would block a light blade or glancing plasma pulse, so the expense had been worth it. The tailor had also added an assortment of hidden pockets for my weapons, even to the dresses.
I couldn’t imagine what even fancier fabric and a rushed job was going to cost.
Stella crossed her arms and tapped her foot until I sighed and used my neural link to send the order request to the tailor. “Done.”
“You’ll thank me later,” she said with confidence. “Now let’s see what else you ‘forgot’ to order.”
I tried on clothes for nearly an hour. The vast majority of my new wardrobe consisted of blouses and slacks in dark, subdued colors. Everything I’d ordered was comfortable, flexible, and easy to move in. And if I decided to do a bit of poking around, I would blend in with both the locals and the shadows.
We might be spinning this trip as a diplomatic visit, but I knew that many of Valentin’s advisors would not be happy to see me in Koan. Not only had Valentin and I signed a peace treaty that favored the Rogue Coalition, I had tricked an unknown number of his advisors out of several million credits. To be fair, they had been attempting to buy Valentin’s death, so I didn’t feel bad about it, but they would certainly hold it against me.
Figuring out exactly who wanted him dead was one of my top priorities.
When the reply from the tailor came through, I winced at the price but approved it. “I’ll have a dress waiting for me when I arrive,” I said. “She said she will ship the rest as they are made.” I frowned at Stella. “We could’ve bought a lot of food for what I’m paying her.”
“We have enough food. We need our queen to return to us in one piece because stars know that none of the rest of us can hold this ship together.”
“Nor do we want to,” Ari added, “so be careful.”
“I will be,” I promised. I just hoped it was a promise I could keep.
We tunneled to Achenstev Prime, the Kos Empire’s planetary headquarters, in a single transit. We were practically neighbors, cosmically speaking. The planet glowed lush green and sparkling blue on Invictia’s screens. Koan, the capital city, was situated near the equator and offered a temperate climate year-round.
We were awaiting landing clearance and had been parked in orbit for nearly twenty minutes. Imogen growled when ground control put us off again. “Maybe they’re hoping we die of old age before they have to let us land,” she said.
“Maybe it just takes time to roll out the appropriate pomp and circumstance for a visiting queen. I’m very important, you know.” I tilted my chin in the air and waved an imperious arm.
Imogen snorted, then laughed. “If it were up to you, we’d sneak in a back door.”
Truth be told, I’d suggested it, but Ari had forbidden me from trying it in no uncertain terms. This was to be an official visit where the Kos Empire would be obliged to ensure my safety. I wasn’t worried about Valentin stabbing me in the back, but I wouldn’t trust his advisors not to try, given half an opportunity.
Five minutes later, I decided I’d waited long enough. Patience had never been my strong suit. I reached out to Valentin via a voice-only neural link. When he accepted the connection, I asked, Are your ground crews planning to let us land sometime today or am I going to have to cause an intergalactic incident?
I could hear the smile in his mental voice when he said, Maybe save the incident for later. I’ll contact the ground crews and get you clearance, then meet you at the spaceport.
He closed the connection before I could tell him that he didn’t need to meet me in person. Still, butterflies took flight in my stomach. I’d be seeing Valentin in person, and soon.
“Finally,” Imogen muttered under her breath when the approval came through a few minutes later.
“I linked Valentin,” I said. “He’s meeting us at the spaceport.”
Imogen slanted me a sly glance, but she kept her thoughts to herself. Despite living in Arx for nearly two years, she still tended to think of me as queen first, Samara second, and acted accordingly. I hoped this trip would break through some of her reserve.
Invictia cut smoothly through the atmosphere. She’d spent weeks in dry dock for repairs after my last trip. There were still a few things that needed fixing, but she was space-worthy, and there was no other ship I’d rather have.
As we approached, Koan sparkled below us, a metropolis of glass and metal reaching for the sky. The Imperial Garden—a huge, three-hundred hectare park that surrounded the palace—looked like a green oasis in the heart of the city.
The palace itself was a sprawling complex. A large, ornate stone building housed the main residence and ceremonial chambers. While the building was in pristine condition, it clearly was a product of another era—one long past—and a testament to the lasting power of the Kos Empire. A few other buildings clustered nearby, including a tall modern glass tower that held most of the government offices and guest quarters.
I’d been to Koan once, many years ago, and the memories were not happy ones. I hoped this trip would end far better.
Valentin had gotten us cleared to land in the palace spaceport. It was at the edge of the park and access was limited to visiting dignitaries and imperial advisors. I would’ve much preferred landing in the main spaceport outside the city and making my own way to the palace, but that wasn’t how queens traveled. Unfortunately.
Invictia settled onto an outdoor landing pad, between two larger ships painted in the black and red of the Kos Empire colors. The vid screens showed a small group of people piling out of a quartet of transports. Everyone was dressed in full ceremonial attire.
I was glad Ari and Stella had talked me into buying a new wardrobe. I didn’t care how I looked, but based on the cluster of people below, Stella had been right—no one would take me seriously in my usual clothes. Here I was Queen Rani of the Rogue Coalition, not Samara Rani, a nobody from a backwater planet no one had ever heard of. And while it might be fun to see his advisors turn their noses up at me, I was here to help Valentin, not stir up trouble.
At least not yet.
I stood and brushed a hand down my black blouse and gray slacks. I’d drawn the line at shoes I couldn’t run in, so I wore a pair of black ankle boots with a short, sturdy heel. I also had a range of flats and a pair of tall boots. Despite Stella’s grumbling over the dresses, I had ordered nearly everything else she’d suggested.
“Ready?” I asked.
Imogen nodded and stood. At a meter seventy-five, she was ten centimeters taller than me. She wore slim black pants and a pale pink button-down that complemented her deep brown skin. Short, tight black curls haloed her head and accented her impressive cheekbones. Together with her curvy, hourglass figure, she looked beautiful and harmless.
It was exactly the right look for a bodyguard.
Her appearance didn’t reveal that she had speed and strength augments that rivaled my own. She could lift and carry a man twice her size without breaking a sweat. And if it came down to it, she could put him on the ground in half a heartbeat. I’d seen her in training and would not want to go hand-to-hand with her on my best day.
We stopped in the cargo hold. I lifted the hem of my blouse, revealing the shoulder holster tucked into the curve of my waist. An undershirt prevented it from chafing—this wasn’t my first rodeo. I slipped a small plasma pistol into the holster and dropped the hem. The flowing fabric of my blouse concealed both gun and holster.
Imogen didn’t need to be quite so subtle. She slung a utility belt around her waist and holstered a much larger plasma pistol. We’d debated putting her in full combat armor, but had decided it would send the wrong message. I’d desperately wanted to watch Valentin’s advisors’ expressions when they figured out my bodyguard came kitted out in prototype Kos armor, but I’d managed to refrain. Barely.
Between the two of us, we had three trunks of clothes and accessories. Most of that space was dedicated to my new wardrobe. A fourth trunk held all of the weapons and other gadgets we might need. It would stay on the ship until I was sure we could smuggle it in without getting searched.
I linked to the sled that held the three trunks we were taking and put it in follow mode. It hovered at knee height. I nudged it to ensure the gyroscopes were working. It slid back a few centimeters then stabilized. Good enough.
“Don’t let them separate us,” Imogen reminded me. “We should be put in a suite together, but if we are not, then insist on it.”
“I will. If I miss something, speak up. I’m not used to having a bodyguard. I’ll likely forget some of the rules, so let me know when that happens. I won’t get mad at you for speaking your mind.”
Imogen smiled. “I’ll remind you that you said that. Ari warned me to keep an eye on you or you’d vanish, so expect me to be constantly underfoot.”
“Ari worries too much, but I’ll try not to vanish without letting you know.”
I opened the cargo bay door. Valentin stood at the bottom of the ramp, clad in a formal red coat, black pants, and tall black boots. Black braided rope encircled one shoulder and the host of medals on his chest must’ve weighed a kilogram, at least. A brilliant gold crown sparkled against his dark hair.
I smiled despite myself. How he managed to remain incredibly handsome even in that ridiculous getup, I’d never know, but he did. Stella had tried to persuade me that I should wear a crown and I’d laughed. If she found out that Valentin had arrived in full regalia, I’d never hear the end of it.
Valentin grinned at me and the swarm of butterflies in my stomach turned into a herd of elephants.
I led Imogen and the cargo sled toward Valentin. Once we were clear of the cargo bay, I used my mental link to Invictia to put the ship into lockdown. It would alert me to any usual behavior and wouldn’t unlock for anyone other than myself or Imogen.
I tore my eyes away from Valentin long enough to assess the people with him. Luka Fox, Valentin’s bodyguard, was clad in all black and towered behind Valentin’s right shoulder. Luka had wavy ice-blond hair, a muscular build, and a scowl that would send lesser mortals fleeing for their lives.
When he caught my eye, his scowl deepened. I’d met him in Arx, and I was not his favorite person, mostly because I’d let Ari commandeer his armor. I smiled brightly at him. His eyes narrowed but otherwise he didn’t rise to my baiting.
To Valentin’s left and a meter behind him, three men and three women waited in long black and red ceremonial robes. Their expressions ranged from open hostility to fake, plastic smiles. Only one woman seemed to be genuinely happy to be here. She was the only one who acknowledged me with a slight incline of her head. The others stared through me as if I didn’t exist.
Valentin closed the distance between us, took my hands, and kissed the air next to my cheek. Heat rushed through me as I remembered the last time we were this close, but he kept the greeting formal. “Welcome to Koan, Queen Rani,” he said, his voice warm. “The Kos Empire will do our utmost to ensure your comfort and safety during your stay.”
He let go and stepped back. The medals on his chest jingled every time he moved. It grounded me in the moment, and I was grateful. He shifted and the medals clinked together again. I bit my lip to prevent myself from snickering at him. From the laughter in his gray eyes, he knew exactly what I was thinking.
I bowed a few degrees—enough to be respectful, but so not much that I appeared subservient. Stella had coached me on the proper etiquette. “The Rogue Coalition thanks you for your hospitality, Emperor Kos,” I said. “I am here on a peaceful diplomatic mission.”
Someone in the group snorted. I leaned around Valentin and pointedly stared at his advisors. “But violence will be met with violence,” I finished.