Valentin tried to guide me toward his mother while I did my best to drag my feet without being obvious about it. I failed.
“What is wrong?” he asked.
“You didn’t tell me your mother was here,” I hissed under my breath.
He looked surprised. “Of course she’s here. Where else would she be?”
The simple logic of the statement only made it worse. Of course she was here. I knew Valentin’s mother still lived, and I knew she usually resided in Koan, but it had never occurred to me that she still attended official events. That was a research failure on my part.
Despite dragging my feet, Valentin had us positioned at the bottom of the stairs by the time the dowager empress had descended. I studied her from under my lashes.
Entertainment media through the years had led us to believe that empresses should be tall and stately, as sharp and beautiful as statues cut from icy crystal. Valentin’s mother was none of those things. She was petite, plump, and pretty. Laugh lines fanned out from the corners of her eyes and her dark hair was threaded with gray. When she smiled at Valentin, her whole face lit up. She wore her emotions on her sleeve, something that had come through even in her photos.
Valentin kissed the air next to her cheek. “Hi, mom.”
“Hello, darling. Don’t keep me in suspense; introduce me to the lovely lady on your arm.”
“Mother, may I present Queen Samara Rani of the Rogue Coalition. Samara, this is my mother, Dowager Empress Marguerite Kos.”
I bowed with the same level of deference I’d used for Valentin. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Your Majesty.”
“Please, call me Margie. I’m so happy to meet you! I’ve heard so much about you.” Her eyes sparkled with warmth. Clearly she hadn’t heard the same rumors as everyone else. She lowered her voice. “Valentin told me how you saved him. You have my gratitude. If you ever need anything, you only have to ask.”
“Thank you, Your M—Margie, but I’m afraid I did it for entirely selfish reasons. And Valentin has already more than repaid me.”
Something sharp and fierce flashed across her face, totally at odds with her previous warm, easygoing attitude. “Saving your people isn’t selfish,” she chided. “And even if it were, you returned my son to me. That is priceless. My offer stands.”
I bowed my head. “Of course. Thank you.”
Valentin chuckled beside me. “You’ll find that Mom gets her way more often than not,” he confided. “She’s tricky like that.”
Margie smiled serenely and didn’t deny the claim. She linked her arm through mine. “Let’s take a turn around the room, see what the vultures are up to today. While we walk, tell me about your gorgeous dress. I’m always looking for a bright new tailor.”
I told her about the tailor and the fittings and how my two best friends had bullied me into buying the dress despite the cost. That led to a discussion about my friends, and Arx, and much more than I’d been meaning to share. I caught myself mid-sentence. “Oh, you’re good,” I breathed.
Margie laughed, a light, joyful sound that turned heads, but her expression was shrewd. “For what it’s worth, you caught on faster than most. I was empress for a long time. My husband was not an easy man, but I loved him fiercely. I found that I was the most help to him if people underestimated me, thought me a pretty bauble who loved to talk.”
Questions crowded my tongue. If she had loved her husband, how did Nikolas end up Valentin’s half-brother? And which brother did she support now? There was no polite way to ask, so I held my peace.
“Being underestimated is an excellent strategy,” I agreed quietly. “And depending on the target, insultingly easy.”
Margie’s eyes danced with hidden amusement. “Indeed.” She turned to Valentin. “I approve.”
His expression didn’t change, but he tensed slightly before darting a glance at me. When he found me watching him, a smile touched the corners of his mouth. I got the impression that I’d somehow passed a test I didn’t know I was taking. He nodded to his mother.
“Tomorrow you will lunch with me,” Margie told me. “Just the two of us. And your guard, of course.” She softened the order with a bright smile.
“Mother—” Valentin started.
Margie patted his arm. “You can have her back after lunch.” She nodded as if that settled it—and it did.
It was difficult to stay mad at Valentin for not warning me about Margie when the lady herself was a familiar combination of charming and cunning. Now I knew where he got it.
A low, melodious chime announced dinner. Valentin escorted us both into the banquet hall. Luka, Imogen, and the dowager’s guard trailed behind us. This room was just as impressive as the ballroom. A mixture of square and rectangular tables filled the space. Each was draped in a red or black tablecloth and laid with gleaming cutlery and sparkling stemware.
Valentin lead us to a long table on a raised dais at the far end of the banquet hall. Chairs only lined one side, facing the room. A pristine white tablecloth hid the underside of the table. Imogen peeked under it before nodding her approval.
The table was laid with place settings for fifteen, with three obvious places of honor in the middle, denoted by ornate chairs. I hesitated to the call the center chair a throne, but it was far more elaborate than any of the chairs surrounding it.
When Valentin caught my raised eyebrow, he grinned sheepishly. “I may not be required to wear my full regalia to dinner, but some traditions are harder to get rid of than others.”
Margie sat on Valentin’s left and I sat on his right. My chair was surprisingly comfortable despite the ornamentation, with thick padding and armrests gently smoothed by many hands. When Imogen didn’t sit down beside me, I turned to look for her.
She was far enough away that I linked to her. Are you not eating?
We have a table back here, she said. Luka and I will take turns watching so the other can eat. She caught my indignant expression and cut me off before I could protest. It’s not a big deal. As I said, I’ve guarded before. This is normal. Better, actually, because Luka says they feed us the same food your fancy ass gets.
I smiled. She was finally loosening up, at least a little. My fancy ass can keep watch for an hour. Make sure you eat.
I closed the link and turned back to face forward. People were slowly tricking in, filling the tables in a haphazard order. Either seats were assigned or no one wanted to sit next to anyone else.
I checked our table, but there were no name cards. So when Oskar Krystopa pulled out the chair next to me, I had no warning. He scowled down at me before pulling out the next chair for his daughter.
Oh good, this would be a pleasant dinner.
The rest of the advisors took their seats. My side of the table included Oskar, his daughter, Junior, an unknown man, Myra, and finally an empty seat. Based on their body language, the man next to Junior was his date, despite not being with him earlier. So perhaps Myra and Junior were just close friends after all.
I leaned forward and peeked at the other side of the table. Margie was on Valentin’s left. The rest of that side included Hannah, her husband, Joanna, Joanna’s date, Asmo, and finally a beautiful young woman who couldn’t be more than nineteen. Asmo leaned over and nuzzled her while she giggled. My opinion of him sank lower.
With nothing else to do, I turned to Oskar. “We don’t have to be enemies,” I said quietly.
He responded with frosty silence.
Well, so much for diplomacy.
When most of the people had taken their seats, Valentin stood and pulled me up next to him. The sea of faces was no more welcoming than it had been when I was announced.
“I am delighted that Queen Rani has decided to grace us with her presence,” Valentin said. “She is my honored guest and a friend of the Kos Empire.” His smile sharpened. “Slights against her will be treated as slights against me.” He turned to me, and I realized I was supposed to say something.
I stared out at the elites of the Kos Empire and wondered what I could say, if anything, that would bring them to my side. “Thank you to Emperor Kos for the kind invite,” I started slowly. “I look forward to building on our existing treaty and strengthening our working relationship. You may not realize it, but the Rogue Coalition plays an important role as an intermediary between Kos and Quint. That Quint tea you love doesn’t appear by magic.”
A few uncomfortable chuckles broke the deafening silence.
“I know you love to look down on us from your towers of privilege, but at the end of the day, the Rogue Coalition gets the job done. And we all benefit.”
I didn’t get a standing ovation—hell, I didn’t even get a sitting ovation—but I hadn’t expected one. Several people did at least look like they were considering my words, so it wasn’t a total loss.
“Enjoy your dinner,” Valentin said. He sat. I sank down next to him.
“Well done,” he murmured.
“You could’ve warned me.”
“You think fast on your feet, and I wasn’t sure you’d want to say anything.”
His faith in my abilities warmed me. I wondered if I could shock any of his advisors to death by leaning over and kissing him. He must’ve caught the direction of my thoughts, because his expression heated.
The moment was broken when a discreet server placed a bowl of soup in front of Valentin. I masked my frustration behind a cool smile. Margie and I were served next, followed by the rest of the advisors and their guests.
Valentin tried to keep me entertained, but he kept getting drawn in by Hannah and talking to that side of the table. With no one to talk to, my thoughts turned back to this afternoon’s attack.
I endured five courses, each more extravagant than the last, culminating in a spun sugar confection that should’ve been a delight, but everything tasted like ash. Someone wanted Valentin dead and I was no closer to figuring out who.
I took a deep breath and reminded myself I’d been here for less than a day. Yes, that day felt a hundred years long, but it was still just a day. I had time—at least a little.
By the time Valentin escorted me back to my suite, I was tired and grouchy. I’d been solidly ignored by Oskar and his daughter for the entire dinner and trying to converse around them had been an exercise in frustration. I managed to meet the unknown man with Junior, but only because I’d introduced myself after we’d finished eating.
Steven was Junior’s husband, and he was as amusing as Junior was serious. I’d liked him immediately and had relaxed for the first time in hours. Then Oskar had made a snide comment about conversing with the enemy and Steven had clammed up on me.
I rubbed my eyes before remembering my eyeliner. My fingers came away smudged black. I had the irrational urge to burst into tears or punch something, and I couldn’t decide which sounded better.
We stopped in the foyer while Imogen swept the suite and Luka pretended to give us privacy. Valentin touched my arm. “Are you okay?”
“It’s been a long day.”
“Do you want me to go?”
Now there was a dangerous question. I considered the wisdom of either choice for a few seconds. “No. Let’s talk, just the two of us.” I side-eyed Luka and lowered my voice. “I won’t promise you more than that, but I’d like your company,” I said with candid honesty.
“Of course. Is it okay if I go change into more comfortable clothes?”
I smoothed the backs of my fingers down the lapel of his suit jacket. “I suppose. I’ll miss the suit, though,” I teased.
He grinned at me. “Conveniently, you’ll get to see another one tomorrow. And the day after. And the day after that. I have an endless supply.”
“In that case, go change and I’ll do the same.”
Valentin and Luka left just before Imogen returned. “You’re good to go,” she said.
“Thanks, and thanks for all of your help today. Take the rest of the night off. I’m not planning to go out again until in the morning. Valentin is coming over.” At her sly grin, I clarified, “To talk.”
“Well, you might want to wash your face. Just in case. I’m going to change and then go see if I can find a gym. I’ll be gone an hour or two, but link me if something comes up. And don’t go out without me.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” I lied. At her skeptical expression, I relented a little. “I’ll keep you apprised of my whereabouts.”
She shook her head. “I deserve hazard pay just for keeping track of you,” she grumbled good-naturedly.
“I’ll see what Ari can do,” I agreed with a smile.
We both retreated to our respective rooms. I carefully undressed and hung the dress in the wardrobe. Tomorrow I would see if the palace staff could launder it for me. If they couldn’t, hanging it would prevent the worst of the wrinkles.
I scrubbed my face free of makeup and put on a loose pair of lounge pants and a tank top with a built-in bra. This was me at my comfiest. If Valentin didn’t run screaming from the room, it would be a good sign.
I carried my plasma pistol into the living room and set it on an end table. That way, if someone tried to come through the balcony, I’d be able to welcome them properly.
Imogen appeared, dressed in workout clothes. “I’m heading to the gym. I’ll link you on my way back so I don’t interrupt your talk.” She narrowed her eyes. “And don’t even think about leaving this suite without letting me know.”
I huffed out an amused breath. “You’re persistent, I’ll give you that. Have a good workout.”
“You, too,” she said with an unrepentant grin.
She let herself out. For the first time today, I was alone in the suite with my thoughts, but all I could think about was Valentin’s upcoming visit. Adrenaline set my nerves fluttering. I needed to calm the fuck down or I’d jump him as soon as he cleared the door.
And I was pretty sure he would let me.
I closed my eyes and willed myself to focus. Because despite what my body thought, I really did need to talk to Valentin.
My nerves refused to settle. I laughed at myself and went to look for a drink.
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