TQA is going to be fourteen chapters, so set your expectations accordingly: we’re in the beginning of the end. :) Happy reading!
I held out a hand and Imogen passed me one of her pistols. A sizable crowd of people milled about in the lobby, despite the ongoing alarm. A few people halfheartedly headed outside at the direction of the overwhelmed security guards, but most stood between me and the door. I didn’t want to cause a stampede, but if these people didn’t get out of my way, I wasn’t going to be held responsible.
Myra caught up to us and then shoved ahead, her own pistol visible. “MOVE! Imperial Guard coming through!” Her shouts echoed off the ceiling, and a path magically opened up.
The courtyard was filled with disgruntled people dressed in nice clothes. Luckily, they were spread out enough that we didn’t have to elbow our way through. But getting into the palace nearly took an act of violence. We had to fight against the crowd coming out, then Myra stopped to argue with the security guard who tried to usher us back outside. As soon as the guard was distracted, I bolted for the stairs.
“Stop!” she shouted.
I ignored her. Hopefully Myra would keep her from shooting me in the back.
The elevators were out of service, but the doors at the bottom of the private stairs to the family wing unlocked with my personal identity key. Valentin had added me to the system.
“Plan?” Imogen asked as we raced up the stairs.
“Shoot anything that shoots at us. Find Valentin. Don’t get shot.”
“Your planning sucks.”
I chuckled. She wasn’t wrong. We were both augmented with speed and strength, so six stories of stairs weren’t a challenge. I remained on guard, but the stairwell was empty. If this was an attack and not a freaky coincidence, the attackers were either still on the floor or they’d escaped another way.
The electronic lock on the door at the top of the stairs was dead and only the emergency lights were on. I hadn’t worn my night-vision lenses, so if it was dark on the other side of this wall, I was going to be fucked.
But first, we had to get through the door. I tried linking to Valentin again but he still didn’t answer. “Think we can kick it down?”
Imogen looked skeptical but shrugged gamely. “On three?”
We slammed our feet into the door near the lock. It made a hellacious noise, but it held firm. After four attempts with the same result, I began to wonder if I was going to have to climb the elevator shaft.
When the lock clicked open and the door swung open an inch, I dove for the handle while Imogen covered the opening.
“Luka?” she asked.
I peeked around the door. It took me a second to recognize the big guard. He slumped against the doorframe, blood painting his blond hair red. The hallway beyond him was dim, a distant window providing the only light. Even the emergency lights were off.
“Where is Valentin?” I demanded.
“He’s here. Got a trauma-doc on him. He needs medical.” Luka’s voice was thick and sluggish.
“Threats?” Imogen asked.
“Team of five. Two are down in the hall, likely dead. Three more ran after they downed Valentin. Wearing guard uniforms. I hit at least two of them.”
Imogen moved into the hall, scanning for threats. I followed her. “Anyone else injured?”
“No,” Luka said.
Valentin was a meter down the hall. He had a trauma-doc clamped around his chest and even in the low light I could see that he was deathly pale. From the blood trail, it seemed like Luka had carried Valentin from the direction of his office, then collapsed. Luka had dragged himself to the door, leaving Valentin tucked into a shallow nook.
I smothered my fear and anger and dealt with the most important issues first. “Where was he hit?”
“Plasma bolt to the chest, right side.”
“Do you trust the medical team here?” I asked.
“I trust Junior,” he said.
“Link him, tell him to meet me in medical.” I bent to pick up Valentin as carefully as I could. He didn’t stir. The edge of the trauma-doc pressed into my chest, and I tried my very best not to think of him as dead weight. I ruthlessly suppressed the fluttery panic that tried to rise.
“Can’t,” Luka said. “Whatever took out the lights took out my neural link.”
Fuck. “Where is medical?”
“On the second floor.”
“Can you carry him?” I asked Imogen, tilting my head at Luka. She nodded, so I stepped around her into the stairwell.
“Where are you hit? Can I put you over my shoulders?” she asked him.
“Left side, left thigh, right calf, right arm. Do what you have to do.”
Footsteps in the stairwell preceded Myra. She skidded to a stop when she caught sight of me. Several guards hovered behind her. She took in the scene in a glance. “Is he alive?” she asked.
“Barely. Luka can’t link. Ask Junior to meet us in medical, now. Two dead in the hall. Find the three who escaped. Luka said they’re in guard uniforms and two of them are injured.”
She turned to the guards behind her. “Secure the floor. Search the premises. No one in or out without my express permission, guards included.”
They saluted and edged around us, sneaking glances at Valentin’s still form. Imogen heaved Luka up and draped his large form over her shoulders. His face was a mask of pain but he didn’t make a single sound.
“Let’s go,” I said.
Myra led us down the stairs at a quick trot. I was strong enough to carry Valentin cradled like this, but my back and arm muscles burned as I tried my best to keep him from jostling on each step.
An eternity later, we arrived on the second floor and made the short trip to medical. Junior waited for us. When he saw Valentin’s state, deep lines bracketed his mouth.
“Plasma pulse through the chest, right side,” I said. “Luka got him in the trauma-doc an unknown amount of time after the hit.”
“Less than two minutes,” Luka grated out.
“He’s been unresponsive since before I picked him up.”
“Put him here, carefully,” Junior said with a wave to the nearest med chamber. It was the newest model, far superior to anything we had in Arx. A small army of doctors and nurses moved around the room, gathering supplies and programming the auto-doc.
I put Valentin down and the machine started beeping. They were not happy beeps. Junior took over, tapping on the control panel with quick, precise movements.
I watched, helpless. Myra hovered at my shoulder. Behind us, Luka argued with another doctor. He refused to be put under while Valentin was defenseless. Unfortunately for him, his slurred voice meant he wasn’t going to be awake for much longer anyway.
This was one problem I could solve. I turned to Luka. “The sooner you heal, the sooner you can protect Valentin, so shut up, lie down, and let the doctors do their jobs. I will guard him while you’re out.”
Luka glared. “You’re the reason he’s injured. If he weren’t so distracted with you, he wouldn’t have been ambushed in his own fucking office.”
The verbal dagger landed with deadly precision. Valentin had survived multiple attempts on his life with barely a scratch. But then I’d shown up and he’d been attacked twice in two days and now he teetered on the edge of death.
I walled off my emotions and stared down at Luka with cool dispassion. “Do not blame me for your own failures. Get in the fucking med chamber so next time you might actually be able to do your fucking job.”
Luka tried to lunge for me, but Imogen easily pinned him on the med chamber table. His pallor was emphasized against her deep brown skin. He’d lost a lot of blood. Despite my harsh words, I was impressed he’d made it as far as he had.
“Sedate him,” Junior ordered behind me.
Luka growled something, but the doctor nearest him pressed an injector to his arm while Imogen held him still. He glared at me until his eyes slipped closed. This would not improve our relationship.
I glanced around. There were too many people in here. Valentin was in the med chamber, fitted with a full-face breathing mask. That was a bad sign. They planned to fill the chamber with renewal fluids to supplement the work of the auto-doc.
They’d cut away most of his clothes. His golden skin had lost its luster. He, too, had lost a lot of blood. What the fuck had happened?
“Okay, on three we’re removing the trauma-doc. Tanya, I want you standing by to flood the chamber as soon as we’re clear.”
“Yes, Dr. Mobb,” a petite red-haired woman said.
Junior removed the trauma-doc with the help of two nurses. They quickly and carefully arranged Valentin in the middle of the operating table, then closed the chamber lid. Tanya tapped on the control screen and a thick, pinkish fluid poured over Valentin’s body.
The hole in Valentin’s chest was a mass of cauterization and renewal gel from the trauma-doc. His vitals remained dangerously low, but they weren’t worsening with the switch, so that was a tiny bit of good news.
“He’ll pull through,” Junior murmured to me. “He has healing augments. The med chamber will do the rest.” I wasn’t sure if he was reassuring me or himself.
“Do you need all of these people?” I asked just as quietly.
Myra, still hovering near, said, “Keep the ones you trust most and send the rest home. I’ve got guards on the way to protect the hallway, but I’m putting this room on lockdown.”
Junior frowned at us. “You think he’s in danger from my people?”
“Someone wants him dead. It’s my job to keep him alive,” Myra said. “Send them home. Make sure whoever you keep knows we’ll be locked in until he wakes.”
Junior sent a significant glance my way. “I hope you know what you’re doing,” he said to Myra. She nodded at him, and he capitulated. Junior kept four people and sent the rest home.
After they left, Myra turned to me. “In or out? Once I lock this door, I’m not opening it until Valentin is awake.”
I would be more useful if I weren’t trapped inside, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave Valentin when he was so vulnerable and Luka was out of commission. “In.”
She nodded and manually locked the door with a lock that was only accessible from the inside. The quiet beeping of the med chambers was loud in the silence. Only the two chambers containing Luka and Valentin were filled.
“Where are the captured soldiers?”
Junior shook his head. “One died late last night and the other passed early this morning.” When he caught my suspicious glance, his jaw firmed and his eyes flashed. “They weren’t killed, if that’s what you’re thinking. I’m surprised they survived as long as they did. Neither regained consciousness and I had to manually program the auto-doc because it originally put their chance of survival too low to initiate treatment. I was here for both deaths and did everything I could.”
“I apologize. It’s been a shitty twenty-four hours.” I swore. “Has anyone talked to Margie?”
Myra’s expression went distant. “Rina says the empress is in her private garden and unharmed. I’ve advised her to seek protective shelter immediately.”
“Were the other attackers caught?”
Myra’s pinched look was answer enough.
Medical had been designed as a refuge. It was stocked with water, rations, and a small bunk room, but the monotony of waiting left far too much time for thinking. The nurses had set up a rotation schedule and then two of them had disappeared into the bunks despite the fact that it had been morning. I suppose they were used to odd shifts.
Junior checked on Valentin every ten minutes like clockwork. Myra situated herself in a corner where she could see everyone, but her distant expression meant she was linking. I sat next to Valentin’s med chamber and Imogen leaned against the wall nearby. I sent a message to Ari, letting her know that I was okay.
Despite his augmented healing, Valentin remained unconscious. His vitals had stabilized, but Junior warned that he would likely remain out for at least a day and would need to remain where he was for several days after that. Tonight’s formal dinner had been canceled with the excuse that Valentin had taken ill.
After Margie’s guard had gotten her to safety, the dowager empress linked me and demanded details. I had to tell her that Valentin was gravely injured and that we wouldn’t open the door, even for her. She took the news only marginally better than the advisors we’d locked out.
Oskar, Hannah, and Asmo had all demanded entry and vowed to arrest us for treason when Myra had refused. Rumors were rampant that Rogue rebels had infiltrated the palace, and with Valentin out of commission, they grew unchecked.
Time crawled. We’d been stuck in here for less than four hours, but already the inaction made me want to climb the walls. To keep myself busy, I reached out to a couple of information specialists I’d worked with in the past. I didn’t know if they could find anything that Valentin had overlooked, but at this point the possibility was worth the expense. I carefully put together my request and had them focus on Asmo and Hannah. If they didn’t find anything, then I would expand the search to include the rest of the advisors.
It took nine hours for the med chamber to release Luka, which meant he’d been far more injured than he’d let on. He scowled to find me next to Valentin, but after he verified that I hadn’t killed the emperor in his sleep, Luka gave me a grudging nod and settled down on the other side of Valentin’s med chamber.
I took that for the temporary truce that it was.
Near midnight, Myra and Luka had a low conversation, then Myra headed for the bunks. Luka remained at his post by Valentin. I hoped they had worked out a guarding schedule and Luka wasn’t trying to do it all himself.
Imogen found a blanket and made herself a pallet on the floor with her back to the wall. I dozed in my chair near Valentin’s med chamber. It wasn’t the most comfortable, but it meant I awoke anytime someone came near.
I drifted in the drowsy haze between awake and asleep, so when I heard Valentin’s voice in my head, I thought I was dreaming. When it repeated, I startled fully awake and checked on Valentin, but he remained out cold.
It was early, before six, and only Luka remained awake. At his raised eyebrow, I shook my head and settled back into my chair.
When I received a neural link connection from Valentin, I froze for a second before accepting it. Valentin?
Yes. Did you forget my identity already? I could hear the mental smile, but he sounded tired and distant.
What happened? Are you okay?
I feel like shit, and I’m barely conscious, but I’m alive, despite the rumors indicating otherwise. But you need to get out of Koan. It’s not safe. I’ve given you access to my ship; it’s in the Imperial spaceport. Take Imogen and go.
I checked the net. The rumors had worsened overnight. Now I stood accused of killing Valentin because he wouldn’t help me defeat the Rogue rebels. I was also accused of holding Myra and Junior hostage and forcing them to cover up the emperor’s death. There was no mention at all of the attackers who were killed in the family wing. People were pushing for Nikolas to be named emperor and for the Rogue Coalition to be held accountable—seemingly by blowing us out of existence.
I’m not leaving Koan. If you issue a statement and people know you’re alive, things will settle down.
There was a long pause. Maybe. I don’t know. The soldiers entered using Nikolas’s access codes. I don’t know if he was with them, working with them remotely, or coerced into giving up the codes. I didn’t sense him nearby, but I only caught a snippet of their communication before they nuked my ability to link. His tone was completely neutral, but hard proof that his own brother was involved in an attempt on his life had to hurt.
I wished I could touch him, give him a hug. I’m so sorry.
I had hoped that he wasn’t involved for Mom’s sake, but it is not a huge surprise. He sounded resigned. I’ve removed his entrance authorization.
Revoking Nikolas’s access was long overdue, but I kept that opinion to myself. Sharing it wouldn’t help, even if it was the truth. Margie was going to be crushed—unless she, too, supported Nikolas. But her worry for Valentin had seemed too real and too raw to be an act, so I was inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt until I could talk to her.
Do you think Nikolas is working with Adams? I asked.
I have to assume so until I find evidence otherwise. But without the surveillance video, I have no proof either way.
Proof was the one thing we were short on everywhere.
If you like TQA, perhaps you would also like my debut novel, Polaris Rising. Available now: