Valentin returned with two crystal flutes of sparkling wine. He held one of them out to me with an unreadable expression. “Your drink, Queen Rani.”
I stepped away from Asmo and accepted the flute from Valentin with a genuine smile. I decided not to dwell on the happy little thrill I felt whenever he was near. He had been gone for less than half an hour, but it had felt like forever. “Thank you.”
Valentin turned to Asmo. “Thank you, Advisor Copley, for keeping the queen company.” The dismissal was impossible to miss.
Asmo ignored it.
“It was my pleasure, Your Majesty. Spending time with Samara is no hardship. She is enchanting.” He lifted my free hand and kissed the backs of my fingers. When he lingered, I pulled my hand away, forcing him to release me. His eyes lit.
I hadn’t been trying to entice, I had just wanted my damn hand back. “Thank you for the escort,” I said, keeping my tone polite.
“Have lunch with me tomorrow,” he pressed.
“The queen is busy,” Valentin said. “She will be lunching with me.”
That was one way to throw down a gauntlet.
Asmo’s expression turned sly. “How about breakfast, then?” he asked me. “I could cook for you.”
He rubbed me the wrong way, but I had no real reason to turn him down. He might be a good source of information, and I’d done worse for less.
“Advisor Copley, I suggest you find someone else to breakfast with. Queen Rani is busy. If you will excuse us.” Valentin didn’t wait for an acknowledgement before he guided me away, his hand respectfully on my elbow.
I connected to Valentin via neural link. If you were trying to discourage him, then it backfired spectacularly, I said. Asmo wants a challenge and you’ve just painted a target on me.
Isn’t that what someone who is wrapped around your finger would do? he asked.
Talked to Oskar, have you?
He wanted to banish you. When I refused, he told me why I should. You let Imogen put him on the ground?
Yes, because he threatened me. If my bodyguard let that go, she wouldn’t be much of a guard. I paused, then forged on, concerned by his tone. You know that I didn’t mean it, right? I wanted to see if your advisors would tell you or try to use it to their own advantage.
I know, Valentin said, an odd note in his voice.
I stopped and turned to face him. “Are you sure?” I asked quietly.
His eyes searched my face. “I know,” he repeated. Across the link, he continued, You caught me off guard. So many people have lied to me… His mental voice trailed off.
He’d been betrayed by those closest to him, and now I’d given him reason to doubt me. It was not my smartest decision ever. I’m sorry, I said. I was thoughtless. I will choose my strategies with more care in the future.
Some of the tension drained from his face and he nodded. He offered me an arm and resumed walking once I’d taken it. Did you learn anything? he asked.
Oskar told you what I said, despite the fact that he boasted he could make me disappear without your knowledge. Did any of your other advisors warn you?
No, Valentin said.
That could be a clue or it could mean nothing. Traitors came in three varieties. The first wanted to watch the world burn and they didn’t care who happened to be collateral damage. They were the easiest to catch because they almost universally acted in their own interest.
I doubted Valentin’s traitors were that type or he would’ve caught them already.
The second variety wanted to effect some sort of change—like removing an Emperor they couldn’t control. They didn’t want to destroy the Kos Empire because then they would have to give up their cushy lives. They were harder to catch because they would do things that seemed loyal right before they stabbed you in the back.
The final variety of traitor was just in it for the money. They wouldn’t much care who they hurt along the way, but they were shrewd and careful, so they were the most difficult to catch. They would make sure everything was in place before they stabbed you in the back and disappeared into the night. My former security specialist had fallen into this category.
My gut said Valentin’s traitors fell into the second category. They didn’t want to disrupt the status quo too much, but they’d much rather Valentin wasn’t running the ship. Which meant they were likely working with Valentin’s half-brother Nikolas.
Do you have any intel on where Nikolas is? I asked during a lull in the conversation.
No. He disappeared before I returned from Arx and I haven’t heard anything since.
Is he allowed in the palace?
Yes. He’s still my mother’s son and my brother.
Of course he was. Too bad there wasn’t a convenient wall to bang my head against. Valentin brought me the next best thing, the two advisors I hadn’t already alienated tonight. When Junior Mobb, the medical advisor, caught sight of me, his expression went carefully neutral. Even Myra’s expression was less-than-welcoming.
“Queen Rani, you remember Advisor Mobb and Advisor Shah, right?” Valentin asked.
“It’s a pleasure to see you again,” I said.
Myra looped her arm through Junior’s and I had the sneaking suspicion that it was to keep him from darting off without acknowledging me. However, her expression remained guarded. “Are you enjoying your evening?” she asked.
Valentin thought Myra was loyal, but Junior was an unknown, so I went with a partial truth. “It’s been interesting,” I said.
“To be sure,” she murmured.
I weighed my options, then initiated a connection with her via neural link. She met my eyes for several seconds before accepting.
What? Her tone was not welcoming.
You spoke to Oskar, I said.
I did. It was enlightening.
I made an executive decision. It might come back to bite me in the ass, but my gut said Myra wasn’t the traitor, and I trusted my instincts. Someone wants Valentin dead. I am not that person, but I’m going to find out who is.
Her expression didn’t even flicker. She didn’t immediately respond, but she didn’t close the link, either.
Valentin and Junior were talking about some new breakthrough medical research that Junior’s team was working on. They were so engrossed that Myra and I just had to murmur agreement.
You were testing him, she said at last. And the rest of us. Why did I pass?
I shrugged delicately. You haven’t. But I have to start somewhere, and I think you’re loyal.
Of course I’m loyal!
So says every traitor, right up until they betray you.
Myra inclined her head. What can I do to help?
You must have suspicions. I need whatever information you have. And keep it to yourself that I’m looking.
I will consider it. She closed the link.
It was the best I could hope for. While it was a risk for me to trust her, it was a much bigger risk for her to trust me. For all she knew, I could be working for the traitors. And if things went poorly for me, I could leave for Arx at any time. She would be stuck here with the fallout from her actions.
As Myra’s attitude warmed, Junior began including me in his conversation with Valentin. Junior seemed especially sensitive to Myra’s moods. If they weren’t lovers then they were very close friends.
Or they were silently communicating.
Junior had developed a new process for augmentation that cut down on the chance of rejection and also sped up the healing process. If trials continued to go well, it would be an incredible breakthrough.
“Junior’s father performed my augmentation,” Valentin said. “He is one of the greatest doctors of his time, and Junior is continuing to expand his research.”
Junior smiled at the praise but waved his hand. “My father is a true genius. I just do what I can.” He turned to me. “Do you have any augments, Queen Rani?”
“I do. I was augmented many years ago.” I prayed he would leave it at that, but when his face lit with interest, I knew it wouldn’t be so simple. His gaze ran down my body in a clinical assessment, but none of my arguments were so obvious.
“Speed? Or perhaps strength?” he guessed.
Both, actually, but when I didn’t immediately confirm or deny his guesses, Myra elbowed him. “It’s not polite to speculate, Junior. You know that.”
He ducked his head. “My apologies. Sometimes my curiosity overrides my manners. If you would like to share anything about your experience, my door is always open.”
I doubted he wanted to hear that I’d gone to a brilliant black market hack who had nearly killed me. The vast sum of money I’d spent had gotten me top-of-the-line augments, but none of the pre- or post-care that wealthy imperial citizens received. It’d taken me a month to recover and another six to retrain my muscle memory. I’d barely scraped by that year.
“I wish you luck with your trials,” I said. “Improving the process is good news for everyone.” While I doubted it would bring the cost down to where normal people could afford casual augmentation, it was a step in the right direction.
Valentin touched my hand, a signal that we were about to depart, but before he could make excuses, the ballroom’s double doors opened and a hush fell over the room.
A petite older woman in an exquisite dark gray gown entered. The uniformed attendant at the top of the stairs announced, “Her Imperial Majesty Dowager Empress Marguerite Kos of the Kos Empire.”
It took a second for the statement to process through my stunned brain. Valentin’s mother had just entered the ballroom.
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