So, good news, bad news. The good news is that Polaris Rising is generating some buzz and people want me to do interviews and write guest posts. Yay, publicity! The bad news is that means my normally glacial writing has slid into tectonic drift territory. Hang with me for a couple more weeks and things should get back to normal. :)
Rather than offering me an elbow, Asmo guided me around the room with his hand on my lower back. Removing said hand would probably get me arrested, so I just thought about it. Perhaps the thoughts were a little too obvious because the group in front of us stopped talking mid-sentence.
Do you want me to remove him? Imogen linked. If not, tone down the murderous expression. You’re scaring the locals.
I smiled and the people around me relaxed. Leave him be. It’s better if he thinks I’m weak and easily manipulated by his dazzling good looks. Rumor has it that the attack was Rogue Coalition rebels.
I could hear her mental snort across the link. Someone is spreading lies. And if his hand slides any lower, I’m breaking it, she promised. He should learn some respect.
Agreed. I closed the link. I would break his hand myself, but that would ruin the whole persona I was trying to pull off. It would be better for Imogen to do it, but less fun for me.
Asmo introduced me to a few more people before leading to me toward a cluster of the advisors I’d met this morning. Oskar Krystopa, Joanna Cook, and Hannah Perkins were the advisors for military strategy, science and technology, and diplomatic relations, respectively.
They were standing with three others I hadn’t met, but their positioning made guessing easier. The older, white-haired gentleman was likely Hannah’s husband. They had the easy manner of two people who had spent years and years together. That ease was missing between Joanna and the attractive, middle-aged man at her side. Based on their closeness, they were likely lovers, but hadn’t been for long. Oskar’s companion was stunning, but she was young enough to be his daughter. When she turned to face me fully, it became clear that she likely was his daughter. They shared the same curly black hair and green eyes.
As we approached, Oskar scowled, Joanna ignored me, and Hannah looked entirely too smug. Their companions took their clues from the group and treated me to chilly glares of their own, with the exception of the young woman with Oskar. She smiled at me.
It even seemed genuine.
They were all dressed in expertly tailored designer clothes. Hannah wore a long black and silver dress that her husband’s silver tie perfectly matched. Oskar was dressed in all black: black suit, black shirt, black tie. The monochromatic clothing made his green eyes pop. His daughter had followed his lead and wore a black A-line dress. Joanna had on a gorgeous red mermaid dress and had piled her blonde hair up in curls on her head. Her lover hadn’t gotten the memo and wore a dark suit with a navy tie. The ladies dripped with enough jewels to feed everyone in Arx for weeks.
“Hello, dear,” Hannah said. “I do hope the rumor we’re hearing about you isn’t true.” Her tone indicated just the opposite. She had to be in her seventies or eighties, but she hadn’t lost any of her bite. She also didn’t bother to introduce me to her companions—a subtle snub.
“That depends on the rumor,” I said. “There are plenty of rumors about me that are absolutely true.”
“They say the attack this afternoon was Rogue Coalition rebels attempting a coup. Is it true that you’re facing a rebellion at home?” she asked with a shark’s smile.
“If I were, do you think I would be stupid enough to confirm it to the emperor’s advisors?” I asked coolly.
“You will if Valentin’s life is at risk,” Oskar growled. “Or I’ll have you locked up.”
“Father,” the young woman chided softly, confirming their relationship.
“Try it,” I said, unruffled. “Valentin would never allow it, as you no doubt learned this afternoon. I have him wrapped around my finger.” I wondered just how long it would take that statement to get back to Valentin. Based on Oskar’s expression, I’d guess less than five minutes, but the other three advisors were harder to read. Oskar’s daughter looked strangely disappointed.
“I believe you are vastly overestimating your power,” Hannah said. “Valentin left you alone in a crowded foreign ballroom. If Asmo hadn’t rescued you, you would’ve been left adrift.”
Even Joanna was paying attention now. She and Asmo watched me with identical calculating expressions. If they expected me to give up and apologize, they were about to be disappointed.
“I believe you are underestimating my power. Valentin left to fetch me a drink,” I said. “It’s been pointed out that he could’ve had a servant do it, but he did it himself because I asked him to. And I am never adrift; I am always exactly where I mean to be.”
Hannah gave me a patronizing little pat. “If you say so, dear.”
“I can make you disappear without a trace,” Oskar threatened. “Valentin doesn’t even have to know, so whatever power you think you have is worthless.”
Well, now, wasn’t that interesting. And this time, his daughter didn’t come to my defense.
Imogen stepped up beside me. “Do not threaten Queen Rani,” she said.
“Or what? You’ll fuss at me and tell me to mind my manners?” Oskar scoffed. He’d made the mistake of judging Imogen based on her appearance.
She had opened a neural link with me before he’d finished speaking. May I? she asked.
Yes, but don’t hurt him.
She closed the link and had Oskar on the floor before he’d even realized she was moving. She hadn’t touched any of the others standing in our little circle. “No, Advisor Krystopa, I will not fuss at you. I will kill you,” she promised. “This is your only warning.”
Excited murmurs spread from our location. Apparently this was the most entertaining thing to happen at an official dinner in ages.
“You will pay for this!” Oskar hissed. “Let me up.”
Imogen looked to me. “Let him up,” I said. “I believe he’s learned his lesson.”
Oskar stood and angrily straightened his suit. If looks could kill, his would strike me dead. “I will have you deported tonight,” he promised. He stormed off before I could bait him further. His daughter tossed me another disappointed look before she turned and followed her father.
“That was poorly done, my dear,” Hannah murmured with a disapproving frown. “You should control your people.”
“Imogen acted with my blessing.”
Hannah tutted at me. “Then perhaps you should control yourself.”
The fact that she was still well enough to condescend should prove the enormous extent of my control.
“Don’t mind Oskar,” Joanna said. “He’s a blowhard. If you are having trouble at home, perhaps we could—”
“We’ve taken up enough of Queen Rani’s time,” Hannah interrupted with a sharp smile. “I’m sure Asmo has more people to introduce.” A wealth of nonverbal communication passed between the three of them before Asmo directed me away.
“Oskar will be filling Valentin’s ears by now,” Asmo said. “Are you sure you won’t be leaving tonight?”
“I’m sure,” I said with careless confidence.
I eyed Asmo as if I were deciding whether or not to let him in on a secret. He grinned at me, a charming flash of white teeth that invited me to reveal everything. I gave him a truth hidden in a lie. “Valentin thinks I’m a damsel in distress who desperately needs his help. Now that I’m under his protection, he won’t let anything happen to me. I just have to bide my time.”
I smiled and said nothing.
Asmo once again leaned in close. “Valentin isn’t the only one with power,” he confided with a smirk. “If you need help, I’m sure we can come to some sort of agreement.” His hand slid a half centimeter lower, and I could practically feel Imogen’s eagerness for it to drop just a fraction farther.
Unfortunately for her, while he bent the line to near breaking, he never quite crossed it.