I traded my flowing blouse for a stretchy, closer-fitting top and my heeled boots for military boots. With the slacks I still looked presentable, but then I ruined the look by putting the holster on over my shirt.
The gun might raise some eyebrows, but one advantage of being royalty was the fact that most people wouldn’t question your weird eccentricities. Of course, that only worked if the person realized I was royalty—of a sort—which was questionable.
I slipped a knife into the sheath in my boot, then joined the others. In the living room, Imogen chattered at Luka. She wasn’t normally a chatterbox, so she must be trying to annoy him. Judging from the tension in his jaw, it was working.
Valentin stood near the window, staring into nothing. He looked up when I approached. “I apologize for being short with you,” he said softly.
I waved him off. “I’m sorry I dredged up bad memories.”
“The Onyx Cross is awarded for extraordinary gallantry and heroism in battle,” he said, his voice bitter. “Years ago, Father sent me to drive back the Quint Confederacy forces on Sag4. We didn’t need the planet, had no settlers there, but he didn’t want Quint to get a foothold. I went despite my reservations.”
When he paused and didn’t continue, I ventured, “It didn’t go well?”
A laugh grated out of him. “It did not go well. I went in with a battalion. Five hundred soldiers. We should’ve outnumbered them five to one. Instead, we walked into a trap. They blew our ships out of the sky and my people were slaughtered. We took their command center and called for help, but by the time help arrived, I barely had a platoon left. Those men and women fought harder than anything I’ve ever seen, but Father only awarded the medal to me. I wear it for them.”
He went from five hundred soldiers to less than thirty thanks to bad information. That was a heavy burden to bear, especially when he was then awarded a medal of heroism to really rub salt into the wound.
“I’m sorry,” I said again. The words were hardly adequate, but they were all I had.
“Thank you,” he said. He cleared his throat. “Are you ready to go see the attack site?”
“Did you capture any of the attackers?”
“Two,” Valentin said. “They’re in medical, and I’ve got trusted soldiers watching them while the docs try to patch them up.”
“Any idea who they are?” I asked. A whole mercenary squad might work on a single kill contract if the bounty was high enough, but even then, they were usually far more subtle than an open attack.
“The two we caught are not in any condition to talk. Neither has any identifying marks or documents, and facial recognition didn’t turn up anything. We’re searching for when they arrived. I’ve also got people trying to recover any surveillance video from the area.”
“Could Quint be behind it?” I asked. The attack felt like a military strike and not a kill contract strike—unless the merc squad was freshly out of the military and hadn’t updated their strategy.
“They could be,” Valentin said. “I’m not ruling anything out, but I’m not going to start flinging accusations without proof, either. Hopefully we’ll know more when we can question one of them.”
“What about the rest of the attackers?”
“Escaped,” Valentin said with a grimace.
“In that case, I really think you should stay in the palace today,” I said. “The attackers have proven they can breach your defenses and get away. Going out is an unnecessary risk for you. It will be easier for me to slip out alone.”
“And what if they were targeting you?”
“Then they shouldn’t have missed the first time,” I said.
Valentin rolled his eyes, but a reluctant grin tipped up the corner of his mouth. While I’d been serious, sort of, I’d also been trying to wipe the sadness from his expression. Mission accomplished.
“How about a plan that ends with neither of us being shot?” he asked.
“Where’s your sense of adventure?” When he just stared at me with a raised eyebrow, I relented. “Fine. What’s your plan, then?”
“How important is it for you to see the attack site?”
“It’s important. It’s worth the risk for me, but less so for you.” Valentin’s mouth flattened into a stubborn line, so I didn’t press the point. I continued, “I want a look at the sight lines at the very least. Can you see the spaceport from the folly, or did someone tip them off that we were on the move?”
“You can’t see the spaceport,” he said.
“Did your advisors take the same route?”
“No, they should’ve returned directly. I took you the long way to show off the gardens.”
“Is that your usual route for visiting dignitaries?”
“Not usually, no.” He anticipated where I was going. “Someone knew about my route in time to set up an ambush. It wasn’t announced, but it wasn’t exactly a secret, either. Probably a dozen or more people had access.”
I resisted the urge to rub my forehead, barely. “You have a price on your head, Valentin. You need to be more careful.”
His expression hardened and I caught a glimpse of the cunning warrior who lurked under the effortless charm, sarcastic wit, and polite manners. “I am not as easy to kill as they are hoping,” he said.
He was right. He’d been under constant threat for at least a year and yet he still lived. Perhaps one day he’d trust me enough to confide how he’d managed it. I waited a beat but he didn’t elaborate. “Well, let’s go test the gods of luck, then, shall we?”
Despite Valentin’s apparent lack of concern for his personal safety, a squad of nine soldiers decked out in full Kos combat armor—visors open—awaited us in the hangar. They snapped to attention as we approached. Valentin saluted the dark-haired woman in front. “At ease, Sergeant Major.”
She dropped into a rest pose with a smile. “Heard about this afternoon. Glad to see you’re still kicking, sir,” she said.
“You might be the only one, Sakimoto,” Valentin said. He waved me forward. “This is Queen Samara Rani and her guard, Imogen Weber. I want you to keep an eye on them today. Samara, this is Sergeant Major Natalie Sakimoto. She’ll keep you safe.”
At first glance, I put her age in the late twenties because her face was unlined and her hair was solid black. But when I met her eyes, I revised my guess up by a decade. She had the quiet confidence that came with time and experience. She was pretty, with a wide face that narrowed to a delicate chin. She had a compact, muscular frame and lightly tanned skin.
She bowed. “Queen Rani, Ms. Weber, it’s nice to meet you both.”
I held out my hand for a handshake. After a brief hesitation, she took it. Her handshake was firm without being overbearing. I liked her already. “Nice to meet you, Sergeant Major,” I said. “I don’t stand on ceremony. Call me Samara.”
She grinned at me. “Samara, feel free to call me Natalie or Sakimoto, whichever you prefer. Have you worn combat armor before?”
I knew combat armor was safer, but I felt blind and deaf with it on. “Do you have a helmet and vest I can use instead? And if you have a scoped plasma rifle, I’ll take one of those, too. Preferably a Remy MK9 if you have one.”
Her eyebrows crept up her forehead. “You want a speciality sniper rifle?” she asked.
“If you have one,” I agreed mildly. “If not, I’ll take any decent long-range rifle with a scope.”
Natalie looked to Valentin, and he nodded his permission without asking a single question as to why I needed a sniper rifle. The man was entirely too trusting.
“I’ll have to pull one from the armory,” Natalie said. “It’ll take ten minutes. Let’s get everyone suited up while we wait.”
I accepted an incoming neural link from Imogen. What are you up to? she asked without looking at me.
Just covering the bases, I replied. Might be nothing.
In the end, Valentin talked me into wearing a full set of prototype armor, though I kept my visor open. The armor had the built-in active camouflage ability that had allowed the Quint soldiers attacking Arx to appear invisible. If we were attacked at the folly, being able to disappear into thin air would be a decided advantage.
We took two armored troop transports. They had vid screens instead of windows, complete with thermal imaging overlays. The software was smart enough to fade the colors of expected background temperatures and only highlight abnormalities.
Such as the person-shaped red blob we were currently passing. The video showed a patch of empty grass but the thermal image was another story.
I pointed it out to Natalie. She said, “One of ours. You’ll see more as we get closer.”
“How do you know they’re yours?”
She tapped her closed visor. “My soldiers’ locations are tagged on my display. And I’m the one who sent him there. The transport software also knows he’s friendly. Jordan, turn off your transponder for a ten count.”
A few seconds later, a warning sounded and a red box appeared around the soldier on the display until he reengaged his transponder. Interesting technology and far superior to anything we had in Arx, but it seemed like it would be fairly easy to override.
“What prevents someone from stealing a transponder?” Imogen asked, sharing my concerns.
“They’re secured when not in use,” Natalie said. “As a safety precaution, today I manually flagged the approved transponders after verifying my soldiers were still in possession. Someone could kill a soldier and take their approved armor, but that would generate different warnings.”
“Were these soldiers out during the attack?” I asked.
“I’m not at liberty—” she started.
“Two squads were deployed around the spaceport and adjacent buildings,” Valentin cut in. “The rest of the park, including the folly, was covered by the standard security patrols.”
I frowned at him. He hadn’t told me about the soldiers when I’d asked. He caught my expression and linked to me. Koan is generally very safe but I am not stupid. The two of us together made a tempting target. I would not gamble with your safety.
Why didn’t you tell me?
I didn’t want you to worry.
I was more concerned that you were running around without any security, I said. This is my wheelhouse, but I can’t help you if you don’t give me all the information.
I will try, he promised, then closed the link.
I understood where he was coming from. When secrecy meant survival, you learned to keep everything close. It was something I had struggled with for years, especially when I first became queen. I had tried to do everything and be everywhere because I didn’t trust others enough to let them in.
The fact that I couldn’t do everything had been a hard lesson to learn.
Our transport landed on the edge of the manicured lawn surrounding the stone folly. Before Natalie opened the door, she checked with her teams on the ground and in the surrounding buildings. The site was as secure as they could make it.
I would still be keeping a wary eye on my surroundings.
Up close, the folly was bigger than I expected, close to fourteen meters from the ground to the top of the dome and ten meters in diameter. The second level was held up by eight stone columns and two curved staircases that spiraled down in the middle of the circular structure. The second-story balcony had a beautifully carved stone balustrade that provided minimal cover.
So why did the attackers choose this building?
I circled the perimeter, looking for a clue to their thinking, but nothing obvious came to light. I might choose this building for a one-person sniper strike, but for an entire team? There had to be better options.
I looked back towards the palace, where our transport was attacked. I could just see the scorched earth where an explosive round had landed. I tilted my head, gauging distance. Perhaps they had picked this building because it was at the limit of the range on their ordnance, but I was less familiar with explosive weapons.
“What is it?” Valentin asked.
“Do you know what they were shooting at us? Does it have a range of four hundred meters?”
“Most shoulder-launched plasma rockets have a point range around four hundred meters,” Natalie said.
“Do they cause damage like that?” I asked, pointing to the disrupted ground.
“Yes, if they miss.”
“And if they’d hit our transport?”
Her tone was grim. “We wouldn’t be having this conversation. Valentin’s transports are armored, but those weapons are designed to pierce armor. You might’ve survived, but you would be in medical for a long time.”
I turned to Valentin. “Did you plan your exact route or have someone else do it?”
“I did.” He paused. “But my assistant handled coordination with security.” Desolation haunted his expression for an instant before cold fury chased it away. “He’s been with me since before I became emperor.”
I touched his arm, even though I doubted he could feel it through the thick armor. “He might be innocent,” I said quietly. “You said others had access. Don’t jump to conclusions.”
Valentin stepped closer and tipped his head down to mine. My breath caught at the intent look in his eyes. Luka cleared his throat. Valentin stopped and straightened, then murmured, “Thank you.”
I wanted to haul him back and kiss him, but we had an audience who was pretending not to look at us while also keeping us firmly in view. Luka wasn’t being an asshole, he was looking out for Valentin. It would do Valentin no favors to be romantically linked to the queen of rogues. Still, it stung.
“You’re welcome,” I said with a too-bright smile. “Ready to check the upper levels?”
Valentin frowned at me, but when I shook my head a fraction, he let it go. “Lead on,” he said.
I approached the empty folly with Imogen, Valentin, Luka, and Natalie trailing behind me. A meter from the building, between one step and the next, a dozen soldiers appeared inside, seemingly from thin air. I had my gun drawn before I recognized their Kos armor and lack of visible weapons. I hesitated just as Natalie shouted, “Don’t shoot!”
I took a deep breath and let the adrenaline work its way through my system. “That was not smart,” I said. “I could’ve shot one of your people. You should’ve warned me.”
“You’re far faster than I gave you credit for,” she agreed. “I didn’t think you’d go straight for your weapon.”
I couldn’t see her expression through her visor, but she sounded calm. She had known the soldiers were there, hidden behind active camouflage. I fought to keep my own voice level. “Getting attacked tends to make me twitchy,” I said, “so when a bunch of unknown soldiers appear, my instinct is to shoot first. By witholding information, you put your soldiers’ lives in my hands.” And stars knew my hands had enough blood on them already.
“According to command, you are a security concern,” Natalie said. “The soldiers are armored. Command wanted to see how you would react to a threat and deemed it an acceptable risk. I disagreed but was overruled.”
“My pistol rounds will punch straight through their armor at this distance. If even one of them had been holding a weapon pointing at me, they would be dead.” I turned to Valentin. “Did you know about this?”
“No,” he said, his voice ice cold.
Next to me, Imogen still had her plasma pistol drawn, though she kept it pointed at the ground. It was one thing to underestimate me, but to underestimate me and my bodyguard was borderline negligent.
“You fucked up, Sergeant Major Sakimoto,” I said. “Not command, you. You put your soldiers’ lives at risk.”
“I have to follow orders, ma’am.” She kept her tone polite, but frustration seeped through.
“You could have discussed it with me,” Valentin said. “Why didn’t you?”
“I was ordered not to warn either of you.”
“By Commander Young. But I believe the original order came from Advisor Krystopa.”