Your patience has been rewarded! At long last, The Queen’s Triumph serial has begun. :) Chapters will be posted weekly, barring any disasters.
As a reminder, the serial is a rough draft, which means it has typos and grammatical errors. I’m still writing it (yes, still), so it’s also subject to change (sometimes drastically!) during edits. If the serial format isn’t your jam, you can preorder the edited novella (out Dec 8)!
If you haven’t read The Queen’s Gambit and The Queen’s Advantage, you are going to be a little lost because this series follows Samara and Valentin across books, so go binge the previous novellas and then come back. :)
The trick to meeting an enemy at a time and location set by a traitor was this: don’t. I stalked through Arx trying to find a way around such a universal truth, but the plain white halls of the Rogue Coalition’s capital did not offer up any suggestions.
The meeting would be a trap, and skipping it entirely was the only way to guarantee safety. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option. Commander Tony Adams—formerly of the Quint Confederacy but disavowed, supposedly, by the current Chairwoman—had attacked my people, destroyed my ship, and threatened the tentative peace treaty in the works between the universe’s two superpowers.
He needed to die—slowly.
I just had to figure out how to go to the meeting and survive. And, ideally, how to go alone.
I mulled over the problem as I moved through the familiar halls. Moving helped me think, and being out and about also gave people a chance to air their grievances before they became problems. My frequent availability was one of the reasons I was still queen after five years, despite ruling a group of people who took grave exception to rules.
I stopped in the market, and Zita shouted from her bakery, “Samara! If you don’t kill Eddie, I’m going to do it for you.”
She poked her head out of the building and scowled at me. She was in her forties, with pale skin and curly red hair. I was happy to see that her cheeks were returning to their usual cherubic fullness thanks to the new food supply.
Zita was Arx’s main baker, and Eddie was our main chef. They’d been locked in a fierce competition to produce the best pastry, and Zita was kicking his ass. She had years of experience on him, so it didn’t surprise me that he’d tried a new tactic.
“What has he done now?” I asked.
“He’s been in my supplies! As if I wouldn’t notice that salt and sugar aren’t the same thing.”
“Did you catch it before you used them?”
She looked mortally offended. “Of course!”
I laughed and raised a placating hand. “Okay, I’ll talk to him. Don’t start a murder spree just yet.”
She harrumphed at me, but finally inclined her head and went back to work. I stayed and chatted with a few other people before moving on, but as soon as I was alone again, my mind returned to the problem of the meeting.
No matter how far I walked, I couldn’t figure out a solution because Arietta Mueller, my best friend and head of security, would never allow me to track Adams solo, no matter how well suited to the task I was.
I’d tried to leave my past behind, but it kept coming back. But I’d take every skill I’d ever learned if it meant keeping those close to me safe.
And keeping them safe sometimes meant keeping them in the dark.
I sighed and rubbed my forehead. I wasn’t stupid enough to hie off after Adams without a word to anyone, so I had to figure out how to include Ari in my plans without putting her in danger.
She already knew about the meeting, so unless I was exceedingly careful, she would see through me like glass. And she wasn’t exactly a shrinking violet. She would get her wife Stella involved, and then, before I knew it, everyone I cared about would be charging into danger with me.
Including Valentin Kos, emperor of half of the known universe.
At the thought of Valentin, my steps faltered. When I was in Koan, he’d all but declared he loved me. Just remembering it sent electric shocks skating along my nerves—half terror, half excitement.
In Koan, I’d felt so hopeful about our future. But now that I’d returned to Arx, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the universe to pull back the curtain and laugh at how gullible I’d been to believe such a thing, but Valentin showed no signs of deception. He didn’t press, but he didn’t back off, either. And now that he’d fully recovered from his injuries, I was desperate to see him in person. He was due to arrive tomorrow. Butterflies danced in my belly.
We’d both been busy lately taking care of our people. My citizens had finally lost some of the hard, hungry edge they’d been sporting for months. Cheeks were filling in and smiles were more common. We had food again, and I’d be damned if I let Adams and his crew ruin that.
The Rogue Coalition was the last resort for most of the people here. If I couldn’t protect them, no one would, and that was unacceptable. I had two weeks to figure out how to kill an enemy surrounded by true believers and then speed up the truce between the universe’s two superpowers.
I laughed to myself. Sure, no problem.
At least I could be reasonably certain that Adams would show at the meeting. Like me, he would expect a trap, but his arrogance would ensure his arrival. He wouldn’t want to waste an opportunity to rub his success in Koan in my face. The loss of Invictia still ached like a lost limb.
Eddie Tarlowski stepped into the hall from a storage room. When he caught sight of me, he asked, “Hey, boss, you okay?”
“Just trying to solve all of the ’verse’s problems,” I said with a wry grin. “You need something?”
He shook his head, sending his shaggy blond hair flying. Eddie had been one of the best thieves alive before he’d been conscripted by the Quint Confederacy and wounded in battle. He’d turned up in Arx with a mechanical arm and leg and a galaxy-sized chip on his shoulder. It’d taken months and months before he’d found peace in the kitchen.
“Nah, just wondering if I needed to kick that fancy emperor’s ass because he put that look on your face.”
Warmth bubbled in my chest as I realized Eddie was serious. My citizens tolerated Valentin, but they didn’t exactly love him. Many of them had fled from Kos territory once the war got too close, and the resulting bitterness wouldn’t be overcome anytime soon, no matter how much discounted food the Kos Empire shipped in.
I smiled gently. “Thank you, but it’s not Valentin, it’s Adams.”
Eddie bared his teeth in a quick, edged smile and spread his arms in an inviting gesture. “I’d be happy to kick his ass, too, all you need to do is ask.”
“You’ll have to get in line.”
“Seriously, though, if you need someone to get you in, let me know. There isn’t a door built that I can’t crack.” A sly grin pulled at the corner of his mouth. “And I’ll give you my best friends-and-family discount.”
I laughed. “So I’ll only have to mortgage half of the Coalition’s assets to afford you, then? You’re a gem, Eddie. And I’ll take my knife back.”
“I’ll get you sooner or later,” he grumbled good-naturedly.
My combat knife appeared in his hand, seemingly pulled from thin air. He handed it back with a flourish. Eddie talked with his hands, a clever visual distraction that worked even when he appeared to be too far away to steal. He never stole for keeps, now, more for the thrill of it. The knife would’ve turned up later somewhere obvious in my quarters—my locked quarters.
The knife had been clipped in a holster on my utility belt. I hadn’t felt him lift it, but I’d felt the balance of the belt shift slightly once it was gone. If I’d been less attuned to my weapons, he would’ve gotten away with it.
I waited, staring him down, but he had innocent down to an art. I raised an eyebrow and his mouth turned down into a pout. He handed me the magazine of plasma rounds he’d lifted while returning the knife.
“You’re no fun at all.”
I had to fight to keep my expression stern and suppress the grin that wanted to escape. “I haven’t murdered you, yet, despite an impassioned plea from your most recent victim. Did you really think that Zita wouldn’t notice that you’d switched her salt and sugar?”
The innocent look was back. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I am fine with pranks,” I said, “but if Zita hadn’t noticed, then food would’ve been wasted. You know better.” We all shared the recent memory of gnawing hunger and months of PRiMeR, the cheap meal replacement that was only a half step up from animal slop.
Eddie nodded once, sharply, something fragile in his expression. “I got carried away. It won’t happen again.”
I squeezed his shoulder. He froze slightly at the contact but didn’t pull away. “We all get carried away once in a while. Apologize to Zita. And if you need to talk, you know where my quarters are.”
When I didn’t say anything else, he blinked at me. “That’s it?”
“That’s it.” Justice in Arx was swift and brutal, when warranted. Harsh consequences were necessary when a good percentage of the population remained outlaws and rogues. But small pranks allowed people to keep their skills sharp and reduced unrest. There were only a few rules—no damage, stolen items must be returned promptly, and if the subject of the prank asked you to stop, you did.
“I figured you’d slap me back to peeling potatoes for a month,” Eddie said with a faint grimace. He’d peeled mountains of potatoes when he’d first arrived.
“Zita caught it, so no harm done. And apologizing to her is going to be harder than peeling potatoes anyway.”
He groaned when he realized I was correct. “You’re evil, boss.”
I grinned at him. “Don’t forget it.”
I was nearly back to my quarters when I received a neural link connection request from Valentin. The butterflies came back armed with knives.
When I accepted the link, his voice filled my head, warm and familiar. Would it be okay with you if I arrived a day early?
A day early meant today. It was just a single transit to tunnel here from his home on Achentsev Prime, so if he left now, he could arrive an hour or two. He could be here before dinner.
I swallowed my nerves and gave him the truth. Of course. You are always welcome here.
Good, he said with a smile in his voice, because I’m in orbit. Permission to land?
Shock stole my breath for a moment. You’re here?
Yes. I haven’t contacted ground control yet because I’m testing out some new stealth tech and it appears to be working. His tone turned rueful. I’m hoping you’ll smooth it over with Ari before I get on-planet and she murders me.
Letting Ari at you would serve you right, but I’ll talk to her and get you approval to land. You might as well use my hangar unless you’re in your flagship.
Your hangar is perfect, thank you. See you soon.
I murmured my farewell and disconnected the link. Valentin was here. Now.
And he’d bypassed our security and made it to orbit without anyone knowing. Ari really was going to kill him.
I opened a neural link to Ari and updated her on the situation. She was displeased—to put it mildly—but she agreed not to murder him straight away. She did, however, refuse to let me meet him alone. She wanted to be there when he landed, just in case he’d decided to turn traitor. Ari’s paranoia kept us safe, so I agreed, even though I really didn’t think it was necessary.
Ten minutes later, she knocked on my door. When I opened it immediately, she laughed at me. I could’ve waited a few moments so it wouldn’t seem as if I had been waiting for her, but Ari knew me too well for that. “Anxious, are you?” she asked.
“Terrified,” I admitted quietly.
She nodded sagely. “When we first met, Stella thought I had heart problems because while I appeared calm, my pulse was always sky high.” Ari laughed and shook her head. “She wanted me to do a bunch of tests. I didn’t have the courage to tell her that it was because I was totally gone for her until much later.”
“How did she react?”
“She knew, of course. I wasn’t as smooth as I thought. But she was delighted when I finally admitted it because she felt the same.” A secret smile touched Ari’s mouth. “The rest is history.”
Ari was tall and blonde and beautiful. Stella was petite and dark-haired and lovely. Together they were a stunning couple, made even more so by their obvious love. Longing tugged at my heart. I wanted what Ari and Stella had—someone who always had your back and felt like home. And the more I thought about it, the more that image looked like Valentin Kos.
I followed Ari to my private hangar. The main hangar was much bigger, designed for large military ships, but I’d taken over the base commander’s quarters and they came with an attached hangar designed to house a smaller, personal ship. I’d avoided it since my return from Koan. The empty space just twisted the knife of Invictia’s loss.
A ship was already on the ground, but it wasn’t Korax, Valentin’s personal ship. This ship was the same jet black as Korax, but it was all smooth curves and sweeping lines. It was beautiful and I’d never seen a ship quite like it. I itched to see if the inside was as unusual as the outside.
The cargo ramp lowered and Valentin emerged, trailed by his guard, Luka. Valentin had a lean build that belied just how strong he was. Today he’d skipped the formal regalia and wore black pants and a lightweight, cream-colored sweater. His tousled dark hair, sharp cheekbones, and strong jaw completed the picture. He was, in a word, gorgeous.
Behind Valentin, Luka hovered with his trademark scowl in place. He was built like a muscled mountain topped with ice-blond hair. When he glanced over my shoulder and his scowl got worse, I had to suppress a smile. Not only was Ari not Luka’s favorite person—not after she’d stolen his prototype armor—but she also wasn’t Imogen.
Imogen had accompanied me to Koan as my personal guard and she and Luka had butted heads many times. But Imogen was far tougher than she looked and I was pretty sure she had Luka wrapped around her finger.
I made a mental note to ask her to come to the official meetings. I didn’t need another guard, but I wanted to see the sparks fly.
I met Valentin halfway across the hangar. I was afraid our meeting would be awkward, but he smoothly took my hands and kissed the air next to my cheek. “I missed you,” he murmured into my ear.
His rich voice was even better in person, and my worry melted away. “I missed you, too. I’m glad you’re here.”
He stepped back with a secret smile. “I brought you a present.”
I glanced at his empty hands uneasily. Whatever he’d brought had to be small. Was it a ring? Terror and longing fought for dominance.
Valentin’s smile turned into a laugh. “It’s not what you’re thinking,” he assured me with a wink. “Not yet.”
“Then what is it?”
“I left it in the ship. Come with me and I’ll show you.”
I couldn’t help the grin. “You know that sounds like a bad pickup line, right?”
His smile turned wicked. “That wasn’t what I meant, but I could show you that, too, if you’d like.”
Heat spiraled through me. I would like that. I let myself imagine it for a second before returning to responsibility. “Later,” I promised. “For now, I want to see the inside of this ship. Is it a prototype?”
“Something like that.” He turned to Luka. “Stay here and keep Ari company.”
Luka’s scowl got fiercer and a muscle flexed in his jaw, but he remained silent and nodded curtly. I figured this wasn’t the first time Valentin had run this plan by him.
Ari was more vocal. “I’m not staying behind while you take Queen Rani on a foreign ship—especially not one capable of defeating our sensors.” She was being excruciatingly formal and her tone had a chilly bite. She hadn’t forgiven Valentin for his little stunt earlier.
Valentin swept his arm toward the ship. “You’re welcome aboard, of course.”
Ari grunted her agreement and I hid a smile. That grunt meant she wanted to argue, but Valentin had taken all of the wind out of her sails with his easy acquiescence.
Valentin guided me toward the ship. Luka and Ari fell in behind us, silent, grumpy shadows. We climbed the ramp and entered the cargo bay.
“Welcome to Ardia,” Valentin said.
The inside of the ship was as beautifully built as the outside, even here where most ships were bare and utilitarian. The walls were sculpted metal and the floor had been etched to resembled wooden planks. A staircase with a bannister of what looked like real wood led to the upper levels of the ship. The understated elegance on display meant this ship was ridiculously expensive.
“Are you replacing Korax?” I asked. “Did Asmo’s family bribe you with this ship to lighten his sentence?” Asmo Copley was one of Valentin’s former advisors—one who’d betrayed him. Copley Heavy Industries was one of the largest shipbuilding companies in the Kos Empire. If anyone could build this ship, they could.
Valentin’s expression hardened at the mention of Asmo. “No, I’m not replacing Korax and if the Copleys tried it, I’d lock up the whole family. They know they’re on thin ice.” He glanced at Ari. “Would you mind waiting here? I promise I’m not going to harm Samara, but I’d like to give her the present in private, please.”
Ari looked set to argue until I glared at her. She linked me instead. Shout the second anything seems strange.
Do you really believe Valentin is going to try anything, after all we’ve been through?
She wrinkled her nose at me. No, she admitted, but caution is prudent.
Noted. Don’t kill Luka before I get back.
I closed the link just as Ari said, in her grumpiest voice, “Fine, but don’t be too long.”
Valentin inclined his head in agreement and offered me his hand. I slipped my hand into his and the butterflies took wing once again.
He led me upstairs to Ardia’s main level. In the corridor, the walls and ceiling were lined with color-changing panels—another incredible expense. The panels currently displayed a soft gradient that started with yellows and oranges at the bottom and transitioned through to pale blue at the ceiling. The effect made the hallway seem like it was bathed in sunset. A fraction more color and it would’ve been too much, but the soft pastels worked perfectly.
This wasn’t a random computer generation, this had been designed by an artist with an excellent eye.
Valentin had stopped and turned to watch me as I stared at the panels, mesmerized. I couldn’t be sure, but I thought the colors were ever-so-slowly changing, like a real sunset.
“This is lovely,” I murmured. “Completely unnecessary, but lovely.”
“I thought you might like it.” He tilted his head, considering me. “May I kiss you?”
The simmering desire I’d been feeling blazed brighter. He waited with quiet patience as my gaze tracked across his face. If not for the heat in his eyes and the tense line of his jaw, I’d think he was completely uninterested in my answer.
Rather than answer, I wrapped my hand around the back of his neck and gently pulled his face down to mine. Our lips met and my eyes slid closed.
This felt like home.
His lips were warm and firm as they ghosted across mine, once, twice. He made a low sound in the back of his throat and the kiss changed from light and teasing to hot and heavy. Fiery pleasure sent my blood fizzing through my veins.
Valentin was warm and solid and here. There hadn’t been another attack after I’d left, a worry I’d carried for weeks. I put all of the feelings I couldn’t yet admit into the kiss and he groaned again.
By the time we pulled apart, I had forgotten all worries about awkwardness. His expression was fierce with desire, and I wanted nothing more than to drag him into the nearest bedroom and have my way with him. But Luka and Ari were waiting in the cargo bay.
I thumped my head against his shoulder in frustration and breathed in the warm smell of laundry detergent, cloth, and Valentin. “Do you think Ari and Luka would leave if we asked them?”
Valentin wrapped his arms around me and ran a soothing hand down my back. “Thanks to my entrance, I feel like maybe I’m not Ari’s favorite person right now, so, no, I don’t think so.” His tone was rueful, but I could hear the smile.
“Then I suppose the personal tour of the bedroom will have to wait.”
Valentin’s arms tightened as I straightened. “On second thought,” he said with a grin, “Ari and Luka will definitely leave.”
I laughed and brushed a light kiss across his mouth. “Show me my present.”
“Do you want to see the rest of the ship first?” At my nod, his grin turned sly. “The captain’s quarters are nearby. Should we start there?”
My grin matched his. “Perhaps we should leave the best for last.”
Valentin’s hands flexed against my back, but he drew away and swept an arm toward a door on the port side of the hallway. “Then let’s start in the guest quarters.”
We toured the rest of the ship, and the more I saw, the more I wondered why he had acquired it if he wasn’t planning to replace Korax. Every detail was exquisitely perfect. Ardia had been lovingly designed by someone with piles of money and excellent taste. I started making mental notes for the ship I still needed to order to replace Invictia. I couldn’t afford a fraction of the elegance of this ship, but there were a few things I could do to get a similar effect for less money.
By the time we stopped outside the captain’s quarters, I was desperate to see the design. So when Valentin opened the door, I immediately swept past him into the room, only to freeze in place.
The walls were a familiar pale gold, and a big bed dominated a room that was strikingly, heartbreakingly familiar. This room was a near perfect—but larger—replica of my quarters on Invictia.