Chaos erupted behind Valentin. “You dare—” a dark-haired man started, but Valentin slashed a hand through the air, and the man bit off the rest of the sentence.
“Your safety will be our priority,” Valentin said. “Allow me to introduce my bodyguard and advisors.”
“Of course,” I agreed with a smile as fake as the welcome I had received from said advisors.
Valentin swept an arm toward Luka. “You’ve already met Luka Fox, my bodyguard. If your guard needs anything while you are here, Luka will take care of it.”
I nodded at Luka. I wasn’t an expert in imperial etiquette, but I’m pretty sure Valentin had snubbed his advisors by introducing his bodyguard first—a snub I was happy to continue. “This is Imogen Weber, my bodyguard,” I said. “Imogen, meet Emperor Kos and Luka Fox.”
“A pleasure,” Imogen said with a short bow. After a brief glance at Valentin, her eyes returned to Luka before scanning the area. She always kept Luka in sight, and she had the loose, ready body posture that meant she saw him as a threat. Luka’s expression remained impossible to read, but he watched Imogen with steady focus.
Valentin turned to the seething dark-haired man who had taken offense at my very reasonable threat. “This is Oskar Krystopa, my military strategy advisor.”
Oskar was older, probably in his mid-fifties, despite the lack of gray in his black hair. He had olive skin, green eyes, and curls that just brushed the tops of his ears. He would be handsome if he wasn’t so busy scowling, but based on the lines in his forehead, this was his perpetual expression. He did not bow, and he managed to make his tone convey his sneer. “Queen Rani.”
I gave him a bright, sharp smile. “Advisor Krystopa.”
Next, Valentin introduced Junior Mobb, the medical advisor. A handsome black man in his thirties with close-cropped black hair, Junior appeared indifferent to my presence. His curt greeting seemed like less rudeness and more like distraction. He had the distant look of someone conversing via neural link.
Hannah Perkins was introduced as the diplomatic relations advisor. She was a faded beauty with wrinkled white skin and graying red hair, but her eyes were sharp. She wasn’t as openly hostile as Oskar, but she wasn’t welcoming, either.
Asmo Copley, the domestic affairs advisor, immediately rubbed me the wrong way. Tan skin, dark brown hair, and brown eyes were common enough, but he’d been blessed with exceeding beauty—and he knew it. He laid on the false charm with a shovel. I smiled politely and ignored him. He expected me to fall at his feet, and when I didn’t, I became a challenge. Before he could try a new tactic, Valentin moved on.
Joanna Cook, the science and technology advisor, was a no-nonsense blond white woman in her forties who looked like she’d rather be anywhere else than standing in the open, in a formal robe, greeting royalty. She wore glasses despite the fact that a myriad of options existed to fix her vision, either with surgery or augmentation.
Valentin turned to the final woman, the only person who had acknowledged me on my way from the ship. “And last, but by no means least, Myra Shah, my Imperial Guard advisor.” Warmth infused his voice, a first.
Myra was around thirty—my age—with golden skin and a chin-length straight black bob. Her face was more striking than beautiful, all sharp angles and slashing eyebrows, but her expression appeared genuinely welcoming and her dark eyes sparkled with intelligence. “Queen Rani,” she said with a shallow bow, “it is a pleasure to finally meet you. Welcome to Koan.”
I returned her bow. “Thank you, Advisor Shah. The pleasure is mine.” And this time, I almost meant it.
She grinned knowingly. “Please, call me Myra, and let me know if you need anything during your stay.”
I inclined my head in agreement.
“Are we done here?” Oskar asked. “I’m late for an important meeting.”
Valentin stiffened at the thinly veiled insult, but I just smiled. Oskar would have to do better than that if he wanted me to take offense. “I’m sure they won’t mind starting without you,” I said in my sweetest voice.
Myra burst into a spontaneous coughing fit that sounded a lot like suppressed laughter. Oskar flushed in anger but didn’t do more than narrow his eyes at me. Coward.
I’d caught the attention of the other advisors, and I covertly gauged their reactions. None of them jumped to Oskar’s defense. Hannah’s expression turned disapproving, as if I were a child in need of discipline, but the others were more circumspect. I got the impression that Asmo also disapproved, but his true expression was harder to read behind the charming facade.
“You are dismissed,” Valentin said sharply. “My afternoon meetings are canceled today. I will see you tonight at Queen Rani’s welcome dinner.”
Oskar grumbled something too low for me to catch, but Valentin stiffened and turned to him. “Did you have something to add, Advisor Krystopa?”
“No, Your Majesty,” he said. “Until dinner.” He bowed and left. The others followed suit, taking three of the four waiting transports.
“Well, they were lovely,” I said once Valentin and I were alone with Luka and Imogen.
Valentin laughed. “Those were only my top advisors. I have dozens more just like that.”
“Any of them I should especially keep an eye on?”
“I’d put credits on Myra’s loyalty, but I’ve been burned before,” he said. “Everyone else is in play. None of them have made any obvious mistakes, and they guard their communications closely.”
Valentin had neural link abilities I’d never seen before. When I raised an eyebrow in question, his eyes flickered to Imogen before he said, “They are being extremely careful.”
“Not exactly innocent behavior,” I commented.
“No, but I need to figure out who is actively working against me and who is just looking out for number one.”
“You could just fire them all and see who tries to kill you for it.”
“If I did that, they would all try,” Valentin said drily. He gestured toward the remaining transport. “Shall we?”
I’d been prepared to walk, but I suppose royalty didn’t walk. Valentin and Luka loaded my trunks for me despite my assurance that I was perfectly capable of lifting a container full of clothes. I returned the sled to Invictia while Imogen waited with the transport and scanned our surroundings for threats.
Valentin had Luka, but if someone wanted him dead, he was far too exposed out in the open like this. A glance revealed at least a dozen vantage points where a sharpshooter would be close enough for a kill shot, but far enough away to escape detection.
“Do you monitor the surrounding buildings?” I asked when I returned to the waiting transport.
Valentin frowned for a second before his expression cleared. “Koan is safe.”
I laughed at the absurdity. “Nowhere is safe if you have a price on your head. Do you mean to say that you’ve never had anyone make an attempt while you were here?”
“I appreciate your concern,” he said, dodging the question. “Buildings and airspace facing the imperial grounds are both monitored, and we’ve stepped up security for the duration of your visit.”
I let it go. He’d survived this long without my help, so perhaps he knew something I didn’t. I made a mental note to discuss it with him later, when we were alone. Maybe he would be more forthcoming then.
The transport hugged the ground on the way to the palace, giving us an incredible view of the colorful gardens. Valentin pointed out the landmarks while Imogen and Luka scanned out the windows and surreptitiously watched each other.
The trees and shrubs opened, revealing a long stretch of green lawn. Valentin gestured to the circular stone folly in the distance. Marble columns held up a second-level balcony, and a domed third story offered a view of the garden. “My great-grandfather had that commissioned for my great-grandmother, to remind her of the architecture of her home. He—”
I caught a glint of white from under the dome of the folly. Before I could focus on it fully, Imogen shoved me to the floor and landed on top of me. Half a heartbeat later, Valentin landed next to me, Luka over him, and the transport jerked sideways. Bright yellow light flashed outside and a boom shook the vehicle.
Someone was shooting explosive rounds at us. “Tell me again how safe Koan is,” I muttered to myself. The distinctive thunk-sizzle of plasma pulses raked the side of the transport facing the folly, but the reinforced windows and side panels held. For now.
Our attackers were shooting automatic, high-powered, long-range plasma rifles at us. Those types of weapons were expensive and hard to find outside of the military. Not impossible, as evidenced by my armory in Arx, but not something amateurs would use. This was a precision strike, not an attack of opportunity.
The transport lurched sideways, then rapidly gained altitude as more explosions hit nearby. Flattened to the floor, I couldn’t draw my pistol. I pressed up against Imogen, but she held her ground. “Stay down, Samara,” she insisted. I stayed down. I wasn’t sure that the floor was any safer, but at least I wouldn’t be tossed about as the transport evaded the attack.
Luka and Valentin were strangely silent. I wiggled around until I could see both of them. Luka crouched over Valentin’s prone form, plasma pistol drawn. His expression was intense and distant, but every time it flickered, the transport changed direction. He must’ve taken manual control via neural link, which meant I had him to thank for my continued existence.
Valentin’s eyes were closed, but they moved rapidly behind his eyelids. A frown furrowed his forehead and his jaw clenched. Whatever he was doing was either difficult or painful. A few seconds later, I had my answer as a thin trickle of blood ran from his nose.
“Valentin, you’re bleeding,” I whispered.
“Almost there,” he murmured. He winced and the bleeding increased. Just as I was becoming concerned, he opened his eyes. “Got them,” he said with a savage grin. He looked up at Luka. “Team of six, in and around the folly, half the team is falling back to the northern edge of the park.”
Luka nodded, but his expression didn’t change. “I have two squads en route. I will let them know.”
I rolled over and sat up, despite Imogen’s unhappy protest. I’d never felt so useless or helpless. I burned with the need to do something, but trapped in the armored transport, there was nothing I could do. “How long until we’re down?” I asked.
“Two minutes,” Luka said without looking at me.
Two minutes might as well be two decades. The attackers would be long gone by the time I circled back, even if I left immediately, so hurrying wouldn’t help. Hopefully Valentin’s soldiers would catch one of them before they fled.
Valentin sat up and wiped away the blood. He caught my eye, then a second later, he sent me a neural link request. When I accepted, he said, I’m sorry. I promised you safety and failed.
I’m still alive, aren’t I?
You know what I mean. I expected them to try something, but not so soon, and not without setting off any of the alerts I have in place. This is further proof that they have inside help.
That’s why I’m here. Do you trust Luka?
With my life, he said. He’s had my back for longer than I’ve been emperor.
I need to drop off my stuff, then I want to check out the folly, to see how the attackers think. Unless you have video surveillance. Or trust your people to handle it and agree to answer my questions.
Valentin paused before saying, The surveillance malfunctioned or was sabotaged. I will show you to your suite and then accompany you to the folly.
So he didn’t have video and he didn’t trust his soldiers, at least not all of them. It wasn’t entirely surprising, but it would make the afternoon more dangerous. It would be best if I could slip out on my own to do a little undercover recon.
The transport landed in an enclosed hangar. The door opened to reveal a squad of nine soldiers in Imperial Guard uniforms with weapons drawn. Luka and Valentin exited without hesitation, so I assumed these must be trusted guards and not a group here to murder us.
“Are you okay?” Imogen asked under her breath.
“Yes. Thanks for protecting me. You spotted the threat before I did.”
She smiled. “I’ve been a bodyguard before. Changing locations is always risky, so I was on guard.”
“I appreciate it. Valentin is going to show us to our room, then I’m heading out to the attack location to see what I can find. You’re welcome to come with or stay here, your choice.”
I expected her to grumble about the danger, but she just said, “Consider me your personal shadow for the duration of our trip.”
Valentin led us to an enormous suite in the main building of the palace. “This is technically the family wing,” he said, “but it’s safer than the guest accommodations. And I’m just down the hall in case you need anything.”
He said it without inflection, but the shadow of a grin he gave me had a wicked edge. It was the first sign he’d given that he, too, remembered our scorching kiss.
The living area ended in a wall of glass framing a balcony overlooking the garden. We were six stories up, which would deter casual outside entry but would do nothing to stop someone determined. As I approached, it became apparent that the windows were not actually glass, but were instead a thick, clear thermoplastic. They had to be high quality to look so much like normal glass.
“They’re eight centimeters thick,” Valentin said. “Rated to stop anything short of a missile. The palace is well defended. It’s just everywhere else that is a concern.” He muttered the last part under his breath.
I ventured deeper into the suite. It just kept going. A dining room, study, small kitchenette, and guest bath larger than my bedroom were on the right of the living room. On the left were three bedrooms, each with their own bathroom. Two of the bedrooms were identical, with balconies overlooking the park. The third was an interior room, but it had a wall display simulating the same outside view.
Valentin and Luka trailed behind me while Imogen swept the suite in front of us. After we’d seen everything, I returned to the first bedroom with a balcony. The furniture was sleek and minimalist, made from what appeared to be dark, real wood. The walls were a hazy blue, nearly white, and the contrast made the room feel light and airy.
“Luka, why don’t you show Ms. Weber the security features of the suite?” Valentin asked.
A wealth of nonverbal communication passed between them before Luka finally cocked his head at Imogen and grunted at her to follow.
She raised an eyebrow. “I don’t understand caveman. You’ll have to use your words.”
If Luka was annoyed, I couldn’t tell. He did expressionless better than anyone I’d ever met. “Ms. Weber, I kindly request the pleasure of your company,” he said in a perfect, clipped upper-class accent, “while I show you how to prevent your principal from being murdered while you sleep.”
His voice was as deep as I remembered, but that was not his native accent. Or it was, and what I’d heard before was not. Either way, it was interesting.
If he’d been trying to insult Imogen, he’d failed spectacularly. She ignored the implied insult and laughed. “Touché, Mr. Fox. And call me Imogen.”
Luka just swept an arm toward the door, his expression lightly mocking. After looking to me and receiving a nod, she proceeded him from the room, an impish smile hovering about her lips. I silently wished her luck.
After they left, I moved closer to the window and glanced longingly at the balcony door. The floor-to-ceiling window offered a beautiful view of the gardens below, but the view would be even better from outside. Unfortunately, standing outside this soon after an attack would be unwise.
I was all too aware that, counterintuitively, the best time to strike sometimes came directly after a failed attempt. The target would be lulled into a false sense of safety because of all of the heightened security and make a stupid choice. If you could get past that security—which was often far easier than it should be—you had a clear shot at the target.
Taking Valentin out of the safety of the palace to inspect the folly would be one of those stupid choices, but I highly doubted I’d be able to talk him into staying while I went alone. We’d have to be extra careful.
Valentin came up beside me and stared at the garden. “Do you like the room?” he asked quietly.
I glanced at him, struck again how handsome he was, starkly profiled against the bright wall. “It’s lovely. Far more than I needed, but beautiful.”
He turned to me and caught my hand, then slowly drew me close. When I came willingly, he enclosed me in a loose embrace. I laid my head on his shoulder—the shoulder that wasn’t covered in medals. I touched a finger to the cool gold of a onyx-inlaid cross. I had no idea what it meant, but it seemed somehow sad, like it represented loss and heartbreak, rather than bravery and honor.
“I missed you,” Valentin whispered into my hair.
“We talked nearly every day,” I protested with a laugh. Then, softly, I admitted, “But I missed you, too.”
“During the attack, all I could think about was how close you came to being hurt. I don’t want you to get hurt helping me—once was enough. I think you should stick to an actual diplomatic visit.”
I straightened and stepped back so I could see his face. “First of all, I was hurt in Arx because Commander Adams decided to attack. He would’ve attacked whether or not you were there, so you don’t get to take responsibility for my injury. If not for your troops, it could’ve gone much worse.”
That fact that we had needed rescue still galled a little. Ari had increased our defenses since the attack, but even so, we wouldn’t be a match for a fleet of Quint warships.
“But—” Valentin started to protest.
I cut him off. “Secondly, I promised you help, and I intend to keep that promise. I knew it would be dangerous. I personally conned one or more of your advisors out of five million credits. They aren’t going to let that go, even if my visit remains diplomatic.”
In fact, I was somewhat surprised that they hadn’t taken out a kill contract on me yet. Maybe they were hoping I was here to finish the job. Or maybe they knew I’d be an easier target here than in Arx.
Valentin sighed and ran his hands through his hair. “I didn’t think that would work, but you can’t blame me for trying,” he said with a rueful grin. “I know you can take care of yourself. Hell, you busted me out of captivity. But I wouldn’t forgive myself if you were hurt trying to help me.”
“Who wants you dead, Valentin? Your half-brother Nikolas thinks you stole his crown. Is he working with your advisors or on his own? The Quint Confederacy would certainly like to see you dead. Who else?”
“That about sums it up: my brother, an unknown number of my advisors, and Quint. I don’t know if they are working independently, together, or both. The note my advisors sent you came from the main administration building, but from one of the public terminals in the cafe. The surveillance logs were purged. Whoever they are, they are not stupid.”
“Which is why I think you should stay here while I go check the folly,” I said. “I can slip out unseen and be back before anyone realizes I’m gone.”
“No.” The denial was as hard as granite, with about as much give.
Imogen peeked into the room before I could figure out a persuasive enough argument to change his mind. “Is this the room you decided on?” she asked. When I nodded, she carried my first trunk of clothes inside. She glanced around, as if checking that no enemies had spawned from the ceiling before retreating for the second box.
“I think that means our time is up,” Valentin said, deliberately changing the subject.
I let the argument go, for now. “I think you’re right. And I know you don’t like discussing the traitors, but I need all the information I can get if I’m going to help you.”
“After dinner,” he promised.
“Okay. Let me get changed, and then we’ll go check the folly.” He turned to leave, but I stopped him. “Wait, what’s this medal for?” I asked, touching the black and gold cross.
His mouth flattened into a hard line. “Surviving,” he said shortly. “I will wait for you in the living room.” He bowed and left without another word.