I’d gotten four hours of sleep. It had helped, but not enough, because now I stared stupidly at my wardrobe, unable to decide what to wear. I wouldn’t have time to change after ambushing Myra in her office, so I had to start the day in the clothes I planned to wear to lunch with the dowager empress.
Margie had been nice enough last night, but she was also effortlessly elegant in a way I could never hope to match. So should I attempt a poor copy of it by wearing one of my day dresses, as Stella had called them, or just go for comfort with slacks and a blouse?
I’d asked Valentin for advice. His completely useless response had been “be yourself,” as if I had lunch with empresses every day. To make matters worse, I didn’t know if I was walking into a friendly chat or a polite interrogation.
Done with indecisiveness, I pulled out a pair of slim charcoal slacks and a deep teal, tunic-length blouse. It limited my weapon options, but taking weapons to lunch with the former empress was probably a faux pas anyway. I put on my ankle boots and checked myself in the mirror. I looked good.
I met Imogen in the living room. She had opted for black slacks and a white shirt. A black jacket was draped over the back of the sofa, which would cover her shoulder holster. She was going for a very professional look today.
“Ready?” she asked.
“As ready as I’m going to be.”
“Are you worried about Myra or the empress?”
“Why not both?” I asked with a smile.
She grinned. “You’ll do fine. They both seemed to like you.”
I hoped that held true this morning.
“Are you armed?” Imogen asked.
“I have a short knife tucked in my pocket, but I don’t have any guns. Think I should change that?”
“I have two. If it comes to it, you can have one of them,” Imogen said. “Both ladies might take it better if you didn’t show up armed.”
“Did you think we’d be fighting off an army today or are you always this prepared?”
Imogen smirked. “With you, one never knows.”
I laughed at the well-deserved hit. “I’m glad that the biggest drama in Arx is who is going to win the cooking competition.”
“Heard about that, did you?” Imogen chuckled. “I’ve got ten credits on Zita. Like taking candy from babies.”
We shared a grin.
I linked Valentin as we left the suite. He accepted and immediately asked, Is everything okay? It’s like he thought I got into trouble on a regular basis or something.
Everything is fine. I just wanted to let you know that I’m going to go talk to Myra. She’s not expecting me, but I want to get her opinion on a few of the advisors. After that, I have lunch with your mom.
You’re taking Imogen?
I am, and she’s already informed me that she has two guns.
Good. I’m in my private office. Let me know if you need anything. I’ll see you after lunch.
I thanked him and cut the connection. I was very tempted to head to his suite, just to see him on my way by, but it sounded like he was working. Maybe I would see if I could steal him away for the afternoon once I was done with my obligations.
We took the elevator down to the ground floor, went through a double set of locked doors, and finally came out in the palace’s main atrium. It was open all the way to the distant glass roof and decorated in ornate carved stone and gilded plaster. This was the main entrance to the palace, designed to flaunt the wealth and power of the Kos Empire—and it did.
A dozen people stood looking around in awe, part of a tour group, and a dozen more hurried toward the various hallways leading off the main chamber. A man and woman in Imperial Guard uniforms casually patrolled the space.
No one stopped us as we headed for the exit. I wondered if Myra had her guards reporting on my movements or if I would surprise her.
The courtyard outside was paved with cobblestones that looked like they had been here since the palace was first constructed. A narrow strip of green garden shielded the palace from the modern glass tower next door that held most of the government offices and the advisors’ apartments.
We entered the tower along with a steady stream of other people. The foyer looked exactly like I would expect in any high-end office building in the system. A gilt-framed portrait of Valentin hung over the reception desk, but everything else was sleek, modern, and a little sterile.
A pair of curved staircases led up to the second-floor balcony, one on each side of the front desk. We took the stairs on the left. The second floor was rectangular, wider than it was deep, with an elevator bank tucked into an alcove on the back wall. This floor contained six office suites, two on each side of the building. These were the offices of the top-level advisors and their assistants. The rest of the peons were in smaller cubicles on higher floors.
The frosted double doors of the closest office proclaimed it belonged to Hannah Perkins. The next set of doors led to Oskar Krystopa’s office. I hurried past and hoped they both were still out to brunch.
I pulled open the door to Myra’s office suite and found her standing next to her assistant’s empty desk. She looked like she was waiting on me, so that answered the question of whether or not she was monitoring my movement.
She was dressed casually in black utility pants and a form-fitting blue knit shirt. Today she looked more like the guards she advised than an Imperial advisor, especially with the plasma pistol strapped around her waist. Imogen tensed beside me but didn’t interfere.
“You came this far, so you might as well come on back to my office,” Myra said. She didn’t sound particularly happy to see me, but since she didn’t kick me out, I assumed she’d decided to help. We followed her down a short hall to another door, this one solid wood. Imogen stuck to me like glue. I might trust Myra somewhat, but Imogen was taking no chances.
The office was large, with windows lining the left and back walls looking out over the gardens. A delicate wooden desk anchored the middle of the space and two padded chairs faced it. Myra settled behind her desk and waved me to a chair in front of it. I sat and Imogen hovered near the door, far enough away to give us the illusion of privacy.
“I’m sorry about your ship,” Myra said. “I already spoke to Advisor Krystopa about the security failure. His team is looking into it.”
Pain stabbed at me. I hid it behind a sigh. “In that case, I won’t hold my breath on the investigation results.”
Myra grimaced. “You are not his favorite person,” she confirmed. “But Valentin has ordered a full investigation, so Oskar will do it quickly enough, he’ll just bitch about it.”
“So you don’t think Oskar is a traitor?”
She pinned me with a direct stare. Instead of answering the question, she asked, “Would you like to tell me why you and Luka were out in Koan last night?”
She hadn’t expected that answer and it threw her for a second. “Why not?”
Two could play this game. I answered her question with a question of my own. “How do you know we were out?”
“One of my guards saw you at Jack’s. Well, she saw Luka and a petite figure in a coat and hat.”
Ah, so she’d been fishing and gotten lucky when I didn’t flat out deny it. “Did she tell anyone else?”
“No. And I told her to keep it to herself. I believe she will.”
“I was looking into the attack.”
She leaned forward. “Did you find anything?”
“Damn.” She sighed and rubbed her face. “I don’t think Oskar is a traitor, but I don’t have any proof one way or another. Same for Junior. But they are both my friends and I’m biased.”
“But you do think there is a traitor.”
She nodded slowly.
I had to be careful here to not let my own biases cloud my judgement. “Hannah, Joanna, and Asmo seemed very chummy before dinner last night.”
“Oskar, Junior, and I are friends, and Hannah, Joanna, and Asmo are friends, or at least friendlier with each other than with the rest of us. Hannah keeps the other two in line. Mostly. Joanna is more likely to break from the group than Asmo when it comes to votes.”
“Do you have any feelings on who might be betraying Valentin?”
She tapped her fingers on her desk while she decided if she was going to trust me. After a few seconds, she said, “I have many feelings and exactly zero proof. I’ve done as much digging as I can without being obvious about it, and they are all super clean. I can’t stand Asmo, but on paper the man is a saint.”
“But you think he’s dirty?”
“I couldn’t say.”
She might not want to voice her opinion, but her expression made the truth clear enough—she thought Asmo wasn’t as clean as he appeared to be.
“Tell me about him. What’s his story?”
“Asmo Copley is from a very old, very powerful, very respected family. They run one of the largest shipbuilding companies in the Empire.”
I put two and two together. “Copley Heavy Industries? That’s his family’s business?”
“Yes. His older sister is being trained to take over the company while Asmo focuses on politics.”
“And as the domestic affairs advisor, I’m sure he’s totally impartial about issues that could potentially affect his family.”
“I’m sure,” Myra murmured. She was being cautious, but I didn’t hold it against her. Having a Copley for an enemy would not be an enviable position. “A year or two ago there were some quiet rumors that the family was struggling financially, but nothing ever came of it. They continue to spend credits like water.”
“Would he work with Quint against the Empire?”
“I couldn’t say, but Asmo is an expert at judging which situations are to his advantage, and he is known to use all available resources to achieve his goals.”
So, in a word, yes.
I asked about the other advisors. Joanna, the science and technology advisor, and Junior, the medical advisor, had both risen rapidly through the diplomatic ranks thanks to intelligence, dedication, and passion for the work. Both tended to keep to themselves more than the other advisors, but they often worked together thanks to their overlapping fields. Joanna had lost a much younger sister in the war a few years ago and had retreated even further into her work in medical technology.
Oskar had been the military strategy advisor for years and thought his word should be law. He was grooming his daughter to take over for him, and the young woman was smart and well liked, but Oskar showed no signs that he was ready for retirement just yet.
When I asked if any of them would work with Quint, I got back flat denials. Other than that, Myra was careful to stick to factual statements, positive opinions, and well substantiated rumors. She trusted me, but only so far.
“And Hannah?” I prompted when it seemed she was going to skip the woman entirely.
“Hannah Perkins has been a diplomat for over fifty years and she’s been the diplomatic relations advisor for nearly thirty. She has the most connections of any of us, in part because of her tenure and in part because she is married to the emperor’s cousin. She lost two sons in the war and she hates all things Quint with fanatical passion.”
“She’s married to the emperor’s cousin?” I asked in surprise.
“Distant cousin. That family has many branches. I think he was fifth or sixth in line for the throne when Valentin’s father died.”
I filed that information away. “If she hates Quint, then she wouldn’t work with them?”
“No.” She paused and tapped her fingers, staring into the middle distance. I let my gaze wander while she organized her thoughts. The green garden outside was strangely hypnotic after living in Arx. There we had a perpetual view of rocks and snow, and while I’d had ceiling panels installed to mimic blue skies, nothing beat the real thing.
“No, she would not help Quint. But she might use them.”
It was the most forthright statement she’d made so far. I pressed my luck. “Do you think she is working against Valentin?”
“I couldn’t say.”
I had pressed her as far as she was willing to go, so I changed the subject. “Do you have any guards that are my size or any spare uniforms that will fit me?”
Myra narrowed her eyes at me. “Why?”
“Because Imperial Guards are nearly as invisible as regular staff and people tend to question them less.”
Her scowl deepened. “And you know this how?”
I was saved from having to answer by the shrill shriek of the building’s fire alarm.
“Not again,” Myra muttered.
“Is this common?”
“For the last three days, yes. Maintenance thinks there must be rats in the wiring. But they make us evacuate anyway.”
I stood. “You didn’t find the timing odd? Is the palace affected?”
I tried to link to Valentin but he didn’t answer. Dread settled in my stomach. Something was wrong, I could feel it.
“The systems are connected,” Myra said with a frown.
“Can you pull up the surveillance footage from Valentin’s floor?”
“Only if it’s an emergency.”
“It is. I’ll take the blame.”
Either my tone or the situation must’ve persuaded her. She tapped on her console, scowled, and tapped some more. “Surveillance is down,” she murmured.
That’s all I needed to hear. I hit the door at a run, Imogen on my heels.
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