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Invictia had been my home for more than a decade and now she was burning like a miniature sun, despite the best efforts of the fire crews. Honestly, even if they put the fire out, Valentin was right—the ship was a total loss.
The attackers had gone for the more lightly shielded engine propulsion nozzle. They had set the heavy, shaped explosive in such a way that it blew open the ship’s stardrive, which in turn took half the ship with it. Invictia would never fly again.
I watched the spectacle from the safety of my suite thanks to Valentin patching through the security feed, but the distance didn’t lessen the pain. I’d moved many of my most treasured mementos into Arx after the first couple years, when I’d really started putting down roots, but Invictia herself was my most treasured possession.
The loss hurt, a knife-sharp pain that burrowed into my chest and stole my breath.
An urgent neural link came from Imogen. When I answered, she demanded, Are you okay? Where are you?
I’m in my suite. Valentin is here as well.
Stay there. I’m on my way. Samara, I… I’m so sorry.
I closed the link and blinked away furious tears. Sorrow would get me nowhere and rage would burn down the world. I grasped at control. “Who is responsible?” I asked while I paced the room.
“The attackers were not caught. It was a team of two. I have the video.”
A second window appeared on screen. Invictia glowed greenish gray in the night vision video. Two people, likely men from their builds, came in from the left, pushing a cargo sled covered with a tarp. Both wore spaceport staff uniforms with hats pulled low. The angle meant only their jawlines were visible.
It took them less than a minute to attach the explosive device. Then they just strolled away. Fury, bright and blinding, tried to overwhelm my control. I funneled it into resolve. I would catch these fuckers, and I would make them pay.
“I’m assuming those weren’t really spaceport workers?”
“No. If I had to guess, I would guess they were part of the same squad that attacked us this afternoon. I’ve got a team trying to track their location.”
I didn’t expect them to have much luck. I knew from experience that it was all too easy to hide in a city this big. “Why attack my ship? They had to know I wasn’t on it. Unless they wanted me grounded and unable to leave quickly.”
Valentin sighed. “Someone is trying to undermine you and our agreement. I have no doubt that in a few minutes, gossip circles will be buzzing about the attack from Rogue Coalition rebels. I’ll be pressured to distance myself from an unstable foreign government. Anything you say will be considered unreliable and self-serving. I’m sorry I dragged you into this.”
I stopped in front of where he was leaning against the sofa. “I can work with unreliable and self-serving. But you owe me a new ship.”
“Of course. Let me know what you want and I’ll make it happen.”
I’d been joking, trying to lighten the mood with an obviously outrageous request. His abrupt agreement threw me. I stared at him. “You can’t buy me a ship.”
“Why not? It’s a security failure on my part that yours was destroyed. I can never replace what you lost, but I can give you the next best thing.”
“Valentin, you can’t give me a ship.”
He smiled at me, the first I’d seen since the attack. “If you don’t pick something, I’ll pick for you.”
“I’m going to pick something hideously expensive. You should back out now, while you have a chance.”
“Your pitiful attempt to bankrupt me is noted,” he said with a derisive sniff, nose in the air, then he broke into a grin. “Do your worst.”
A brief knock sounded before the door opened, revealing Imogen and Luka. Both still wore their workout gear. It was eerie to watch them both check us, then check the room for threats in a very similar fashion. Finally, Imogen’s gaze returned to me.
“Someone blew up my ship.”
“Was anyone hurt?”
I felt a stab of shame as I realized I’d been so wrapped up in my own pain and fury that I hadn’t asked about anyone else.
“No,” Valentin said. “It was a targeted strike against Samara’s ship and nothing else. The nearby ships are shielded enough that they only took minor damage.”
“Same attackers?” Luka asked.
Valentin shrugged. “I think so, but I wasn’t able to catch either of them. We have video, but their faces are obscured.”
“They’re trying to divide you,” Imogen said. “To sow doubt and discredit Samara.”
Valentin nodded in agreement. “Rumors are powerful. Stopping them will prove difficult.”
A quick mental check of the local news net proved exactly how true that was. The rumors were already spreading. And the attack details were spot on, with the exception of the perpetrators. Someone with access to the security footage had leaked the information.
I sighed and made a decision. “We don’t need to stop the rumors. I’m going to embrace them. Behold your new refugee Rogue Queen, desperate to hold onto the power that is slipping away into the hands of rebels.”
“It’s dangerous. You’ll be seen as weak and vulnerable. My court will do their best to eat you alive.”
“You’ll keep me safe,” I said with absolute confidence. I knew that as long as Valentin breathed, he would do everything in his power to protect me from his court. I just had to keep him breathing.
“Are you sure it isn’t rebels?” Luka asked.
Imogen rolled her eyes. “She’s sure. She’s too modest to say so, but she inspires loyalty in all of us.”
Luka slanted a glance at her. “You’re hardly an impartial judge.”
She bristled at him, but I cut in, “He’s right, Imogen.”
“I contacted Ari earlier,” she said. “Everything is fine in Arx and she laughed at the thought of rebels. As she pointed out, why would people rebel now that we have food and jobs again, all thanks to our queen? People are delighted by Samara.”
“People rebel for many reasons,” Luka said. “And your people have the necessary skill.”
“Many of my people do have the skills,” I agreed. “It’s something we should consider, though I highly doubt it’s a coup in the traditional sense. Killing me won’t automatically give someone else control. The people made me queen and they will only follow someone they choose. It could, however, mean the end of the Rogue Coalition.”
“Perhaps you should look to your own people,” Imogen said to Luka.
“We are,” he agreed easily.
“Do you have a plan?” Valentin asked me.
“We’re fighting on two fronts,” I said. “We have an unknown team who wants one or both of us dead. We also have an unknown number of your advisors who may or may not be working with that team.”
“That would’ve been good information to have earlier,” Imogen growled.
“It wasn’t my secret to share, but now the attackers have upped the stakes. There are too many unknowns. Tonight I’m going to work on the attack team. Tomorrow I’ll work on the advisors.”
“What can I do?” Valentin asked.
“You can stay here and act normal. I’m going to do some research on Koan, then go check a few local watering holes, see if any new teams have popped up in the last week or so.”
My statement was met with two immediate denials from Imogen and Valentin and one skeptically arched brow from Luka. Good to know that I inspired confidence. “Did you forget who I am? I am not a coddled princess in a tower. I can handle myself with a few mercenaries.”
In fact, after the day that I’d had, I looked forward to teaching a very memorable lesson to the first person who tried to screw with me. I knew going alone was dangerous, but I couldn’t take Imogen. She was a good soldier and had even been a bodyguard before, but she’d never been a mercenary or a thief or anyone else on the shady side of the law. She would be marked as a cop—at best—in two seconds flat.
“Just because we’re worried for you doesn’t mean we don’t respect your skills,” Valentin argued quietly.
I sighed and rubbed my face. Anxious energy pulsed under my skin, making me twitchy and overly sensitive. “I know; I’m sorry. But I can’t just sit here and do nothing. I can’t.”
“I will go with you,” Valentin said.
“You have the most recognizable face in the city. You can’t go with me, though I appreciate the offer.”
“I will go in his place,” Luka said.
“Like hell you will,” Imogen countered. “For all I know, you’re in on it and will stab Samara in the back as soon as you’re out of my sight.”
I knew Valentin trusted Luka with his life, but I was kind of with Imogen on this one. The big, taciturn guard didn’t seem to care much for me, and it would certainly eliminate some danger for Valentin if I were to disappear.
Luka shrugged. “Then I will go alone.”
“No, I’m going, one way or another. How well do you know the typical merc hangouts? And, more importantly, how well do they know you?” I asked.
“You can’t be seriously—” Imogen started, but she bit off the rest of the sentence when I sent her a warning look.
“I know them well. And as far as they know, I’m a personal security specialist.”
I waved at his ice blond hair and solidly muscled frame. “You’re not exactly inconspicuous. Why hasn’t anyone pegged you as Valentin’s guard?”
“I don’t go often, and I know how to stay under the radar.”
I stared at Luka while I weighed my options. He waited patiently and didn’t so much as shift in annoyance. Having a guide would make things faster, but if he wanted to lead me into a trap, I was presenting him with a golden opportunity. And while I could send him on his own, my name might open more doors than his.
Imogen linked me. I vehemently object to this plan, she said without preamble.
Your objection is noted.
Samara, I know you are hurting right now, but don’t rush into danger without reason. I raised a cool eyebrow at her and she flushed but didn’t back down. It’s my job to save you from yourself.
“You may not trust him, but trust me,” Valentin said at last. “Luka will keep his word. If he promises to keep you safe, he will.”
“He owes me nothing.”
“No, but I owe Valentin everything,” Luka said. “I will keep you safe, for him.”
“Who will look after you while Luka is gone?” I asked Valentin.
“I have other guards,” he said, “but it might be better to keep this quiet. I could stay here with Ms. Weber, if she doesn’t mind.”
I mind, Imogen said across the link, but she didn’t protest aloud.
“We need to make a public announcement, to assure everyone that I am still very much alive. Then I need an hour before we leave,” I said.
“I will go change. Link me when you’re ready to make the announcement. We’ll use my office,” Valentin said. He was already reverting from the warm, casual man I’d spent the last hour with to the coolly arrogant emperor.
As he left, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something important was slipping away.
“I will go with Luka while you stay here,” Imogen tried for the sixth time. We’d gone around in circles for the last hour and a half, both before and after Valentin and I had made our announcement. Now I was putting the finishing touches on my fourth outfit of the evening and she was still trying.
When an unexpected link came through from Ari, I sighed in exasperation. “Really? You snitched on me to Ari?”
“Maybe she saw the news on the feed.” When I just stared, Imogen relented. “She told me to keep her informed.”
I rolled my eyes at her and accepted the link. Hello, Ari. Is everything okay?
You tell me, she growled. Did your best friend’s ship just blow up without a word from said friend that she was okay?
Ouch. I deserved that one. Sorry. If it makes you feel better, I wasn’t anywhere near the ship when it blew up.
I already got a full report from Imogen. You’re going to give her an aneurysm.
You know I can’t send her into the underbelly of Koan.
Ari sighed across the link. I know. Are you sure about this?
Then be careful. Keep me posted. And remember that Stella will kick your ass if you get hurt again.
I will be careful. I’m taking Valentin’s guard Luka for backup.
She was silent for a long moment. Watch him. He’s sharper than he looks.
I will. How are things in Arx? No mutinies happening while I’m gone?
She chuckled. No. But Zita and Eddie are in a heated battle to see who can produce the most delicious pastry. I’ve got twenty credits on Eddie. I think he’s a dark horse.
Eddie ran the mess hall in Arx and Zita ran the bakery. Eddie was gifted, but Zita had years of experience on him. I hope you’re ready to lose your money.
Ten credits says I don’t, she promptly replied.
Done, but don’t tell Eddie or Zita. I don’t want to eat burnt food for a month.
Your secret is safe with me. We’re all staying mum, and they’re pretending they don’t know about the betting, Ari said. She paused and her tone turned serious. Do you want me to send another ship?
Do we have one we can spare? We had a few fighters and a massive city ship, but the Rogue Coalition wasn’t exactly flush with extra ships capable of tunneling to Koan.
I’ll find something and have it delivered to the main spaceport under a false name, so they don’t blow it up before you get a chance to see it. I’ll let you know when it arrives. Be careful. I mean it, Samara.
Thank you. I will be. You be careful, too. Someone went to a lot of trouble to ensure I can’t quickly return to Arx. They could be planning to hit you next.
I will increase patrols, she said. And Valentin still has ships in the sector. We’ll be okay.
Good. Take care.
We said our goodbyes and cut the link.
“Ari thinks I’m going to give you an aneurysm,” I told Imogen.
“She’s right,” she muttered not quite under her breath.
“Would you prefer to return to Arx? No one will hold it against you. Exploding ships are far beyond what you signed up for.”
“I wouldn’t be much of a guard if I bailed at the first sign of adversity,” Imogen said. “I’m staying. But I still think I should go out in your place.”
I smiled at her tenacity. “We’ll have to agree to disagree.”
“Be careful. Promise me you won’t ditch Luka. He might not have the best manners, but he’s strong and fast.”
Her tone of voice made the sentiment as much warning as endorsement.
“I don’t plan on leaving him behind. And I will be careful.”
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