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Valentin went to speak to Commander Young and Advisor Krystopa, and then got pulled into an urgent meeting, so I was left on my own. I used the afternoon to wander the grounds and smuggle in my trunk full of weapons and gear.
My dinner dress arrived neatly pressed and ready to wear. I wasn’t sure if the tailor had included instructions or if the staff went through all incoming packages. Either way, I had a dress. I just had to put it on and face the wolves.
The dress itself was gorgeous, with an off-the-shoulder, A-line design that flattered my petite figure while also giving me a pocket for my plasma pistol. The stunning sapphire blue fabric draped like silk and protected like light armor. I’d loved this dress when I first tried it on, but I still thought the price was ridiculous.
I left my long hair down. It was naturally wavy, so the dark brown strands curled over my bare shoulders without the need for a curling iron. I lined my eyes with a heavy black liner and applied smoky eyeshadow. This dress wasn’t meant for meek makeup.
After I finished my makeup, I practiced drawing and holstering my pistol a few times until I could do it without looking. I’d already been shot at once today. Next time, I wanted to be able to shoot back.
A knock on the suite door announced Valentin’s arrival. “I’ll get it!” Imogen called.
I firmly quashed the flutter of nervous anticipation. I wasn’t going to get nervous just because I had on a pretty dress and makeup. I twirled in front of the mirror to check that my pistol was concealed.
It really was a beautiful dress.
In the living room, Imogen spoke to Luka in a low tone. She had traded out her blouse and slacks for a simple black dress that hugged her figure. Luka wore a black suit and looked a little shell-shocked.
I caught sight of Valentin and my heart skipped a beat. He had on a charcoal three-piece suit with a white shirt and a striped silver tie. His dark hair fell over his forehead and he hadn’t shaved the stubble from his jaw. He had always been objectively gorgeous—the Kos dynasty had access to the best genetics money could buy—but tonight his beauty had a rough edge that called to everything in me.
He glanced up, caught sight of me, and froze. Several emotions crossed his face, too fast to track, before he crossed the room to me. He took my hand and bowed over it. “Good evening, my lady,” he murmured. He straightened but kept my hand. Desire smoldered in his eyes. “Samara, you are stunning.”
My pulse kicked. If he kept staring at me like I was the most beautiful woman in the universe, we might not make it to dinner. “Thank you. You look incredible, too. Even without your imperial regalia,” I teased, trying to find my way back to solid ground.
He smiled and brushed a feather-light kiss across my knuckles, then reluctantly let go of my fingers. “The one nice thing about being emperor is the ability to set dinner dress,” he said. “No regalia required.”
“Must be nice. Stella bullied me into buying this dress despite the fact that it cost more than the new hull shielding for Invictia.”
“Remind me to send Stella a token of appreciation,” he said.
I laughed and shook my head. “Don’t. She’s already impossible to live with,” I said affectionately. “If she finds out how much I like this dress, she’ll be unbearably smug.”
“She deserves to be unbearably smug,” he said. He held out an elbow. “Shall we?”
I hooked my hand through his arm. “How many people are going to be at dinner?” I asked.
“I’m hosting official dinners while you are here, both to show my support and to give you a chance to interact with my advisors. My whole court is invited to official dinners, so close to a hundred people, but you really only need to worry about a dozen or so.”
“The advisors I met this morning?”
“Yes, and their spouses, and a few other key people.”
“Sounds delightful,” I lied.
Valentin grinned before he turned serious. “We don’t have to go. I can order dinner brought here.”
Temptation, thy name was Valentin. I squeezed his arm. “That means a lot to me, but we’re going. I want to know who shot at us. I want you to be safe in your own home, even if that home is a ridiculous palace.”
Valentin led me down the elevator then through a series of labyrinthine passageways until we popped out in front of a tall double door flanked by a pair of young men in imperial servant uniforms. They bowed to Valentin.
“Ready?” Valentin asked. When I inclined my head, he gestured to the servants. They turned in perfect sync and opened the door.
The doorway revealed a wide set of marble steps leading down into a massive ballroom. A crowd circulated below, clustered in little gossiping groups. The women wore formal dresses and piles of jewels, while the men wore dark suits or tuxedos. They all turned as we were announced by the uniformed attendant at the top of the stairs. “His Imperial Majesty Emperor Valentin Kos of the Kos Empire and Her Majesty Queen Samara Rani of the Rogue Coalition.”
Silence descended on the room, swift and absolute.
I had debated whether I should attempt to pass myself off as a naive simpleton, but any advisors worth their salt should’ve done research on me. Most of my information was buried, but one didn’t become queen of a bunch of rogues by being stupid. They would know I was up to something.
Instead, I’d decided to go for coolly arrogant and aloof. It was closer to my natural personality than wide-eyed innocence, so it would be easier to maintain. And nothing bothered people as much as not being able to read their opponent. With that in mind, I affixed a neutral expression to my face and looked around in apparent boredom as Valentin escorted me down the steps.
The boredom was difficult to fake because the ballroom was incredible. The soaring ceiling was painted in a series of murals depicting the ancient, stylized battles that told the story of the rise of the Kos Empire. Heavy, embroidered draperies lined the walls and three massive chandeliers provided soft illumination. Servants in imperial uniforms wove through the crowd with trays of champagne and tiny appetizers.
At the bottom of the steps, Myra Shah, the Imperial Guard advisor, waited for our arrival. She wore a deep amber sheath dress that complemented her dark hair and golden skin. She dipped into a shallow curtsy as we approached. “Your Majesties,” she said.
I would never get used to someone calling me ‘majesty.’ The fact that I was grouped in the same category as Valentin was laughable, and apparently I wasn’t the only one who thought so. Sound returned as a low rumble of voices, and most of them didn’t sound welcoming.
“Myra,” I greeted, “it’s nice to see you again.”
She launched into polite smalltalk at the same time I got a group neural link request from an unknown contact. Valentin was the third person in the group and when I caught Myra’s eye, she nodded very slightly, while not pausing in her chatter.
Holding two conversations at once was not a skill too many people possessed. The human brain wasn’t designed to focus so heavily on two things at once. It took a lot of practice, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if all of Valentin’s advisors could do it. I’d learned how to do it because it was a handy—and underhanded—skill to have.
I accepted the link and murmured the correct responses to the small talk.
Rumor has it that the attack this afternoon was Rogue Coalition rebels attempting a coup, Myra said without preamble. Is there any possibility it is true?
No, I said. I will check with my advisors to be absolutely certain, but no. Someone is setting me up.
I thought so, she said. Everything I’ve heard indicates you’re beloved by your people.
I did my best to ensure my people’s happiness, and in return, they gave me their loyalty. Perhaps that was close enough to beloved, especially when compared to Valentin’s court.
Aloud, Myra had switched from the weather to the ballroom. I commented on the murals and Valentin launched into their history. It seemed we all could focus on both conversations at once.
Who started the rumor? Valentin asked.
I don’t know yet, Myra said. I’ve got a few people looking into it, but the first I heard of it was when I arrived tonight, otherwise I would’ve given you more warning.
Thank you, I said.
Let me know as soon as you find anything, Valentin said.
Myra agreed and closed the link. When Valentin finished his mural explanation, she bobbed another curtsey and took her leave.
I opened a link to Valentin. When he accepted, I asked, How long until dinner? There will be dinner, right?
Yes, dinner will be served in an hour.
In that case, I need you to go get me a drink and take your time. I want to see who smells blood in the water.
Valentin’s eyes flashed with suppressed temper, even as he smiled at my compliments on the ballroom. If I leave you, it will look like I am withdrawing my support.
Even better, I said. I gave him my coldest, haughtiest smile. “I’m parched,” I announced loudly. “Fetch me a drink, would you?”
There were audible gasps from those around us. Apparently one didn’t demand the emperor behave like a common waiter. I mentally rolled my eyes.
Valentin gave me a stiff bow. Be careful. Shout if you need me. “As the lady wishes,” he said. Frost coated his tone and his entire demeanor radiated annoyance. If his mental voice across the link hadn’t been warm and worried, I would’ve thought that I’d truly offended him. Note to self: Valentin was a hell of an actor.
I closed the link. I needed to focus on a single conversation. Valentin’s advisors were unlikely to walk up and announce they were traitors. It certainly would speed things along if they did, though.
Asmo Copley, the domestic affairs advisor, was the first to pounce. He sidled up to me and put a hand on my—thankfully covered—lower back. My skin crawled, and I held onto my indifferent mask by sheer force of will. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something about him set off all of my internal alarm bells.
“Advisor Copley, to what do I owe the pleasure?” I asked flatly.
He beamed at me. The man was blindingly handsome in his dark tuxedo, and he used that beauty as a weapon. “Call me Asmo, my darling,” he said.
He continued in a conspiratorial whisper, “I believe you may have offended our fearless leader. I wanted to let you know so you didn’t commit such a faux pas again.”
Of course he did.
I glanced away in disinterest. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw his smile go tight. Oh, he didn’t like to be ignored. “How so?” I asked.
He leaned close, forcing my attention back to him. I fought the urge to pop him in his perfect nose and reclaim my space. “I don’t know how it works in the Rogue Coalition, but here we have staff to fetch drinks,” he said, his words dripping with thinly veiled condescension. “We don’t send the emperor do to a servant’s job.”
“Then perhaps your servants should do their jobs,” I said coolly. I heaved a sigh. “But I suppose I must apologize. What a bother.”
“Let him cool off,” Asmo said. “I will escort you until he returns.”
I’d rather eat glass, but I kept my expression bland. “As you wish,” I said at last.