Imogen put herself between me and the rest of the Kos soldiers. With the way the past few days had gone, it wasn’t a bad call. I tensed and waited to see if anyone would take the bait.
“You better hope you can spend those credits in the afterlife because that’s where I’ll put you if you try it,” Natalie said quietly. “Queen Rani is an ally of Emperor Kos.”
“Unless she killed him,” a female voice muttered. I only heard it through the helmet speakers, so it must be someone on another team.
“Congratulations, squad. You have Lee to thank for your extra PT this month.”
The other soldiers groaned. “Dammit, Lee, when will you learn to keep your mouth shut,” another woman grumbled. “Maybe we should give you to this Quint asshole.”
“Enough,” Natalie said. “What is the status of the explosives?”
“The building is rigged to blow,” a male voice responded. “He’s not bluffing. We haven’t found the control yet.”
“I will also accept a trade of the queen for Nikolas,” Adams announced.
“Don’t do it,” Imogen said.
I rolled my eyes. I might risk myself on occasion, but only when the odds were in my favor. Taking this bet would be stupid in the extreme, especially because I wasn’t convinced that Nikolas actually was a hostage and not just a convenient escape plan.
“Any Quint soldier that helps subdue Adams will receive clemency from the emperor,” I called. “Adams doesn’t care about you. He’s going to blow you all up.”
“My soldiers aren’t cowardly traitors,” Adams taunted.
I bit my tongue against the retort I wanted to make about Nikolas. I didn’t need to air the emperor’s dirty laundry in front of his people.
“I need those explosives gone,” I told Natalie quietly. “It’s possible the stun rounds will disable the trigger, but it’s not a sure thing. You should pull your people back.”
“You can’t put Nikolas at risk,” Natalie said. “He’s the heir to the Kos Empire.”
“He might be the emperor,” Lee mumbled just loud enough for the transmitter to pick up. Clearly she hadn’t believed that Valentin’s statement from the med chamber was real. I prayed he had a quick recovery, so he could be seen in public, or my time in Koan was going to get very dicey.
“Why don’t you tell me who’s been feeding you information,” I called to Adams. “So I know who to target next.”
“Stop stalling. We’re going to leave and you’re going to let us, or Nikolas Kos dies. Or maybe that’s what you want? Trying to take out Valentin’s competition?”
“Don’t let that crazy foreign bitch get me killed!” Nikolas shouted.
That didn’t exactly sound like someone who would welcome rescue in any form. He’d nearly convinced me that he truly was a hostage, but now I began to doubt it again. Valentin was a hell of an actor, why wouldn’t his brother be as well?
“Adams will blow the building as soon as he’s clear. We’ll have a very narrow window of opportunity,” I said. “You need to get your soldiers out to provide cover.”
Gunfire echoed through the speakers and a soldier screamed. “There are two guarding the upper level. One of them shot Marlow. I need backup.”
More gunfire and cursing followed.
“They’re on the move!” another voice shouted.
A peek around the corner showed me two disappearing red blobs and no sign of Adams. Fuck.
“Everybody out now!” Natalie ordered.
I hesitated for a heartbeat, then dashed after Adams. Imogen swore and followed. Two soldiers were waiting for us around the first corner. I hit the first and Imogen hit the second. One of them got a shot off, but it went wide. The delay cost us precious seconds, though, and I could no longer see the other soldiers we were chasing.
The next soldier’s green outline was the only thing that saved them from getting a stun round in the face. “Which way?” I demanded. “And where’s your partner?”
The muzzle of their combat rifle wavered for a second before snapping up. Time slowed. I had nonlethal rounds and that made the decision easy. I fired a split second before they did the same, except they were using decidedly lethal rounds. Imogen, already in motion, took the plasma pulse in her shoulder. She crashed into the wall. The other soldier dropped, stunned.
“Pierced my armor and got my shoulder,” Imogen gritted out. I scooped her up into a fireman’s carry and after a second’s hesitation, grabbed one of the still twitching legs of the soldier who’d shot at me. Twenty credits said I’d just found Lee, but I’d drag her sorry ass out anyway, if only to figure out if she was working for Adams from the start or if the money on offer had won her over.
“Imogen is down, and one of ours attacked us,” I said over the radio. “I’ve got both, but someone needs to get on Adams now!”
Footsteps pounded around the corner behind me. I turned, too slow. Natalie dashed up to us, her invisible form outlined in gold. “Lee!” she shouted. “Where the fuck is Daniels? His transponder is off.” She shook Lee’s unresponsive form, then stood. “Out now! I’ve got her.”
The door was in sight when Adams proved that—in this case, at least—he was a man of his word. The explosion flashed bright and flattened me to the ground. The armor protected me from the worst of it, but my head rang and afterimage stars blinded me.
Fire, smoke, and debris obscured everything. The thermal imaging built into the visor turned everything red. The door had been in front of me, but now I was sideways. Disorientation threatened to send me deeper into the brightly burning building.
“Samara, are you okay?” Imogen asked. I was half on top of her and hadn’t moved.
“I’m alive,” I said. “You?”
Hands pulled me to my feet and helped me pick up Imogen. “The door is straight ahead, five meters,” Natalie said. “Adams didn’t have enough explosives to bring the building down all at once, but it’s weakened and the fire will finish the job. Move, now. And watch your back. I have to help Guerra.”
I eased out of the door, gun first, but I needn’t have bothered with caution. Adams was long gone.
Natalie had lost two soldiers in the explosion. Daniels had been found outside the building with a plasma wound, a dead Quint soldier, and no memory of how either had happened. I’d thought he and Lee had been working with Adams, but the holes in his story made me believe he was actually working for Nikolas.
Lee had sworn that her armor malfunctioned. She’d thought we were enemy soldiers and that’s the only reason she’d shot at us. Of course she’d heard my voice before she’d pulled the trigger, but no one cared what I said. Natalie had pushed for a tribunal hearing to determine what really happened, but the matter had been quickly and quietly swept under the rug. Lee must have friends in high places because she had been demoted and moved to a non-palace squad—equivalent to a very light slap on the wrist.
Imogen had spent a few hours in a hospital med chamber. Both Nikolas and Adams had disappeared, and no one knew if Adams still had Nikolas as a hostage. As far as missions went, it was a clusterfuck of failure.
Valentin had tried to keep my involvement quiet, but that had lasted for all of two seconds. Now Kos citizens thought I was a bad queen, a traitor, and an incompetent fool.
But it wasn’t a total loss. Finlay, the bar owner, had proven to be an invaluable source of local information. My contracted information specialists had come back with some irregularities, so I’d sent them digging deeper. I’d also sent them after Nikolas’s location. If anyone could find him, it would be one of them. All formal events had been canceled. Valentin drifted in and out of consciousness, but he didn’t seem to hold my failures against me. I wished I could see him, but Junior and Myra had refused to open the door for me.
With nothing else to do, I’d spent the past two days hunkered down in my suite, piecing together the information coming in. I couldn’t get the information my specialists could, but once I had it, I was excellent at spotting patterns in the raw data. Thanks to hours and hours of diligent research and careful digging I had a pretty good idea who was betraying Valentin, but the why remained murky.
Which is how I found myself outside of Dowager Empress Marguerite Kos’s suite at ten in the morning on the day Valentin was supposed to be released. When we met, I wanted to give him more than conjecture and Margie might be able to help.
Unlike the last time when I’d planned to have lunch with her, this time I wore my usual clothes—black utility pants and a snug knit shirt. I had a knife tucked in my boot, but I’d forgone openly carrying a blaster. Imogen looked as polished as usual, but I knew she was carrying at least three weapons. She’d become paranoid and I didn’t blame her.
I rang the doorbell and a few seconds later Margie swung the door open. She had on a pair of soft, flowing black slacks and a gauzy orange shirt. She looked perfectly put together.
If she knew why I was here, she didn’t show it. She smiled in greeting and didn’t bat an eye at my unusual clothing choice. “Perfect timing, the food just arrived. I ordered brunch because I wasn’t sure if you’d eaten yet.”
I tried to bow to her, but she gathered me into a hug. It was so unexpected that I went rigid in surprise, then awkwardly patted her back. “Thank you for agreeing to see me.”
“Of course!” She waved me in, then said, “Hello, Imogen. Welcome.”
I didn’t know where she’d learned my bodyguard’s name, but Imogen’s smile made it clear that it was a happy surprise.
“Thank you, Your Majesty.”
“Please, call me Margie. Everyone does. Well, everyone I like.” She winked at us. “Come in, come in. Rina, my guard, is waiting in the breakfast nook. I thought we’d be casual today, if that’s okay with you.”
“That suits me perfectly,” I said.
Margie led us through a suite was that similar to mine, only on a much larger scale. The breakfast nook, despite its name, was a room as large as the dining room in my suite. It seemed to be designed for a long table that could seat eight or ten, but instead a small circular table that seated four was at the far end, near the wall of glass leading to the balcony.
Place settings for two were laid out. Out near the balcony railing was another table with two more place settings. A beautiful woman with porcelain pale skin and strawberry blonde hair sat at the table. She had a plasma pistol in a shoulder holster, so this must be Rina. She was not the same guard who had accompanied Margie to dinner.
“I had hoped we could talk in private,” Margie said. “Imogen and Rina can eat on the balcony where they can see but not hear. But I don’t want you to be uncomfortable. We can bring them in if you prefer.”
I, too, would prefer to have this conversation in private, so this setup was ideal. I turned to Imogen. “Do you have any objections to being on the balcony?”
“May I check it first?”
When Margie nodded, Imogen stepped through the door. Rina stood and shook her hand. I didn’t have any hearing augments, but I couldn’t even hear murmurs of their conversation. I wondered how effective the thick thermoplastic was at blocking sound for those with augments.
Imogen looked around then came back in. “I don’t have any objections. Thank you for ordering food for me.”
Margie smiled. “I wasn’t sure what either of you liked, so I ordered a variety of things. I hope you’ll find something you enjoy.”
“Thank you.” Imogen bowed and retreated to the balcony.
Margie waved a hand at a delicate silver trolley laden with covered dishes. “I ordered family style. Grab your plate and help yourself.” She demonstrated by doing exactly that.
I picked a fluffy omelet, some perfectly crisp potatoes, and a vibrant fruit salad. After a moment’s debate, I added a layered pastry filled with chocolate. I bet Eddie and Zita would love to talk shop with the palace chefs.
I returned to the table, sat down, and tried to figure out how to broach a delicate subject without causing offense. Margie sat down across from me and sighed. “I wondered when you would find your way here.” She gave me a shrewd look. “You have questions for me. I have questions for you. We can dance around each other with polite conversation, or we can cut the nonsense and get to the heart of the matter. Which do you prefer?”
I stared at her for a long second, trying to see exactly how honest she was being. Hopefully she meant what she said. I asked the second most important question I had. “Which of your sons do you support as emperor?”
She sucked in a breath then huffed out a rueful sound. “You don’t pull your punches, do you?”
Considering I’d wanted to ask her about Nikolas’s father and why she’d cheated on her husband, I thought I was being at least a little tactful. I hoped we’d get to that answer without me having to be so crass as to ask outright.
“The short answer is that I fully support Valentin. The long answer is very long indeed. What are your designs on my son?”
I smiled to see she gave as good as she got. “I like Valentin and enjoy spending time with him, but he comes from generations of royalty while I’m a queen in name only, and barely that. It would never work.” That came out far more bitter than I had intended, so I continued, “I promised him four weeks of my time to try to figure out which of his advisors want him dead. I’m paying that debt.”
Something flashed across her face too fast to catch, but she didn’t interrupt. I ate slowly and mulled my next question. “Do you know where Nikolas has been hiding?”
Stark pain twisted her expression before she smoothed it away. “No.” She sighed. “He is furious with me. I’ve tried to contact him every week since he stormed out, but he’s ignored all of my messages. I’m afraid he is making bad choices. How much has Valentin told you?”
“He hasn’t told me much. I know that everyone thought Nikolas would be the next emperor until Victor Kos died and left new instructions. Valentin told me the change was made because Nikolas wasn’t Victor’s son.” I said it as gently as possible, but she still flinched. “It seems no one was particularly happy with the switch, and now people want Valentin dead.”
“He trusts you far more than you think if he told you that much,” she said quietly. She gazed at me for an eternal minute before seemingly coming to a decision. “I will tell you the whole story, but you must swear to never repeat it, not even to Valentin.”
“You will have to explain why I can’t tell Valentin before I’ll agree to that promise.”
She nodded thoughtfully. “That is fair. Valentin fiercely protects those he loves, even if doing so is to his detriment. I did not realize the threat against him was so dire until the attacks this week—he never told me, never even hinted at it. If you hadn’t confirmed that you were here to find out who wanted him dead, I might’ve even written the attack off as Rogue rebels, as rumors indicate.”
“You didn’t know Valentin was being threatened?” I asked skeptically.
“Oh, I knew the Confederacy wanted him dead and had captured him, and I knew a few families next in line for succession would be happy if he died, but I didn’t know we had active traitors in house. I’ve talked to him several times in the last few days and he hasn’t mentioned it at all. When I asked who he thought was behind the attack, he blamed Quint and deftly changed the subject.”
I blurted out my first thought. “He’s going to kill me for telling you.”
Margie chuckled, but she had steel in her tone when she said, “Not if I kill him first for keeping me in the dark, like I’m some useless old woman.”
“I’m sure that’s not why—”
She slashed a hand through the air. “My point stands. If you tell Valentin what I’m about to tell you, he will try to fix it, and he’s already in a precarious position. So I’ll have your promise.”
“I promise I will not repeat it unless absolutely necessary to save your life or Valentin’s.”
“Or Nikolas’s,” she amended.
I had no love lost for Valentin’s half-brother, but I nodded my acceptance anyway.
“Do you know how you can tell when someone is going to keep their word?” she asked. When I shrugged, she said, “They don’t instantly agree to nonspecific, open-ended promises.”
I could tell she was stalling, so I kept the conversation going to give her a bit more time. “Or maybe they are just very good liars.” I toasted her with my chocolate pastry.
“Touché,” she said with a grin.
She sobered and her expression went distant as she gathered herself to share what was an obviously painful story. “Victor and I had an arranged marriage that quickly turned into a love match. I was young when we were married, barely twenty, and far too naive. We tried for three years to have a baby because I knew my one job was the secure the line.”
She must’ve seen the question on my face because she said, “Fertility procedures are not allowed for the Imperial line. It is seen as destiny if the ruling family cannot conceive naturally. And it is almost always followed by an ‘accident’ and a new emperor or empress in the form of whichever heir was next in line.”
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Her smile was grim. “I agree, and now I would campaign to change the rules, but at the time I was young and vulnerable. Victor’s cousin Leo was part of the Imperial cabinet and fifth in line to the throne behind a bunch of healthy men and women—he knew he would never become emperor. He was fifteen years my senior and had the same good looks as Victor. He was also here all of the time, while Victor was always off overseeing some war or treaty or something.”
Margie stared down at the table. “I loved my husband dearly and was deathly afraid of what would happen if I couldn’t conceive. I confessed my worries to Leo. He told me that perhaps Victor was the one with the problem, not me. And he, being a good friend—or so I thought—offered me a solution. You can guess what it was.”
I kept my expression perfectly blank as one of the puzzle pieces I was missing snapped into place, but anger burned in my belly. She’d been preyed on by an older man who had used her worry as a weapon against her, most likely to further his political goals.
“A few weeks later, Victor returned, and within a month, I was pregnant. I was blissfully happy and honestly thought it was Victor’s child. I stopped seeing his cousin, and when it seemed like it the rejection was going to be a problem, I had Victor reassign Leo to a diplomatic post. I thought that would be the end of it. As I said, I was young and dumb.”
“You weren’t dumb,” I said. “You were manipulated.”
“You are kind, but I made a mistake. I knew it was wrong. I hoped Victor would never find out, but I’ve found that secrets rarely stay buried. I don’t know how he knew or when he learned Nikolas wasn’t his. He never once mentioned it to me, and he treated Nikolas as if he were his own. When Valentin came along four years later as a happy surprise, Victor was elated, but he never favored Valentin over Nikolas.”
“Why did Victor change the succession?”
“He didn’t discuss it with me, so I can only guess.” Margie paused and swallowed. She still wasn’t meeting my eyes and she was visibly uncomfortable.
“If it’s too personal, you don’t have to continue,” I made myself offer, despite the fact that I desperately needed the answer.
A smile trembled on her mouth. “I didn’t expect this to be so hard,” she admitted.
I reached across the table and squeezed her hand. Her skin was clammy. The elegant empress was gone and in her place was a woman swamped by pain and sorrow.
She took a steadying breath and continued, “I believe he changed the succession because he worried that someone would find out and Nikolas would be blackmailed over his illegitimate status. I have no proof, but that is my gut feeling.”
“Where is Nikolas’s father now?” I asked quietly. I needed final confirmation before I went to Valentin with what I’d found.
Her short laugh was so bitter it hurt to hear. “The universe delivered my deepest shame directly to my doorstep, so I would never forget my biggest mistake. Leo is Hannah Perkins’s husband.”
It was the answer I’d expected, but hearing it confirmed was still a shock. “Why haven’t you asked Valentin to send them away again? Sitting down to dinner next to them every night must be torture.”
Her expression once again turned shrewd, but she didn’t ask me how I’d known that Hannah and Leo had only returned to the palace full-time after the old emperor’s death.
“The emperor doesn’t have as much power as people believe, and that is doubly true for new emperors. Valentin is in an even trickier spot thanks to the last-minute succession change.”
“You’re protecting him, even though it’s costing you,” I breathed. “And yet you want to keep him in the dark because he would do the same for you. I wonder where he learned that tactic?”
Some of her spark returned. “I am his mother. It is my job to protect him, not the other way around.”
If you like TQA, perhaps you would also like my debut novel, Polaris Rising. Available now: