“Do you like it?” Valentin asked quietly from somewhere behind me.
It took two tries before I could swallow past the lump in my throat and force the words out. “What is this?”
I heard him shift. “It’s not perfect, but I tried to get it as close as I could remember. I know nothing will ever replace Invictia, and I’m so fucking sorry you lost your ship because of me. But I’m hoping that you’ll accept Ardia as a poor replacement.” He paused, then tacked on, “Surprise.”
That did surprise a half laugh, half sob out of me. I looked around the room with vision gone watery. It wasn’t an exact replica, but it was such a close match that Valentin must’ve personally specified every detail from memory—and he’d only been on my ship once.
In the soft sunset light still streaming in through the open door to the hall, it was incredibly, unimaginably perfect, and I wanted it more than I’d ever wanted almost anything.
But it was far, far too much.
This ship would easily buy four or five ships of Invictia’s caliber—and that was before you added whatever special stealth technology the ship had.
The door swished closed as Valentin moved farther into the room. He stopped in front of me, expression shuttered. He gently touched my damp cheek. “I apologize. I just thought…” He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. You’re welcome to pick whatever ship you like, of course. It doesn’t have to be this one.”
“It’s perfect,” I admitted softly. “I love everything about it. But I can’t possibly acc—”
Valentin interrupted me. “If you don’t accept, then Ardia will sit, unused, in a berth somewhere. I already told you that I’m not replacing Korax, and I won’t sell Ardia. I had this ship trimmed out just for you, so you’d be doing me—and the ship—a favor by accepting.”
I arched an eyebrow, back on firmer ground and glad that he hadn’t made a big deal of my emotional breakdown. “Are you trying to guilt me into accepting a ship?”
He grinned at me. “Yes. Is it working?”
I had to laugh at his shameless honesty. “Maybe.”
“Do you want to see the bridge before you decide to mothball poor Ardia for the foreseeable future?”
I wavered, torn. If I saw the bridge, the ship would be as good as mine. My ability to be selfless only extended so far, and the rest of the ship, plus this room, had already stretched it to the breaking point.
“It’s got all of the latest technology, plus a few surprises,” Valentin tempted.
I paced across the plush rug—an upgrade from the worn one I’d had on Invictia. “You’re not playing fair.”
“No, I’m playing to win. You deserve a ship even nicer than this one, but I worked with what I could on a limited timeline.”
“When did you order it?” I asked, looking at him.
“Right after the attack on Invictia,” he admitted.
“That was before I left Koan!”
“I did tell you that I had some ship designs in mind.”
“You also told me that it was my choice.”
“It absolutely is. If you truly don’t like Ardia, I’ll buy you whatever you want. But if you’re just declining because you think it’s too nice, then I’m going to try to persuade you to keep it, by whatever means necessary. One benefit of being emperor is plenty of money. I’ve started giving it away fast enough to give my advisors gray hair, but let me be selfish and do this for you.”
His expression told me that he was deadly serious. If I didn’t like this ship, he would buy me something else. At the height of my career as the Golden Dahlia, I’d made very good money. Death was an expensive business, and I’d used my proceeds to buy Invictia. But even after I’d had the money, I’d agonized for months over the design, sometimes going so far as to price out individual parts.
Being able to buy multiple ships at the drop of a hat, one of them marvelously expensive, was a level of wealth that was so far out of my normal that I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Even when the Rogue Coalition was running at peak performance we couldn’t just buy ships willy-nilly.
Valentin frowned. “What?”
“What are you doing with me?”
His frown deepened. “What do you mean?”
“You can buy all of this,” I waved an arm around to indicate everything in the ship, “and I’m a former assassin turned queen who almost let her people starve to death. We could not be more different. Why me? Why not some princess or the daughter of an industry titan. Someone more suited.”
I had plenty of self-confidence in most areas of my life, thanks to hard lessons learned well and a driving need for self-reliance, but relationships were not one of those areas. I knew I had many amazing qualities, but I had even more glaring flaws and liabilities. I wouldn’t date me.
Valentin’s expression smoothed out into a blank mask. It was somehow worse than the frown. “Do you really think I’m that shallow?”
I’d hurt him. I hadn’t meant to, but that was irrelevant. “No, of course not. I didn’t choose my words with care. I apologize. I’m the one who’s lacking here, not you.”
“I wasn’t raised to be Emperor. If anyone is lacking, it’s me, but do you know what I see when I look at you?” he asked, mask still firmly in place.
I shook my head and refused to drop my eyes, even though I didn’t want to look at him while he laid me bare.
“I see strength, resilience. Caring, self-sacrifice, and love.” My lips parted in surprise, but he wasn’t done. “I also see cunning intelligence and fierce protectiveness.” He cupped my face and smoothed a thumb across my cheekbone. “Your life wasn’t easy, but it shaped you into the woman you are now, and I like you just as you are.”
His words pierced me, not with the hurt I’d feared, but with the strength of his care. Standing in this room, on this ship, the enormity of that care crashed into me. Valentin Kos, emperor of half the known universe, was here for me—and he wasn’t leaving.
I tipped my face up to his and he met me halfway. His lips ghosted over mine, and I lost myself in the pleasure of the kiss. The pieces fell into place. Valentin had already slipped past my emotional defenses.
He was mine.
I drew back with a surprised inhale. For the last couple of weeks, I’d been subconsciously holding back, waiting for him to come to his senses, waiting for his interest to be revealed as a huge cosmic joke. But I was half of this relationship, and if I wanted it to work, I had to fight for it.
I always fought for what was mine.
My doubts settled as they always did when I had a plan and a path forward. There would still be occasional issues—no plan was perfect—but I felt more grounded. And I excelled at modifying plans in motion.
I kissed Valentin again, a quick brush of my lips against his.
“What was that for?”
“That was an apology for being an ass. Thank you for the ship. I love it more than you could possibly know. Show me the bridge before I forget Ari and Luka are waiting for us in the cargo bay.”
Valentin’s eyes softened before a playful grin tilted up one corner of his mouth. “If we take long enough, maybe they’ll get bored and leave.”
“Or barge in and interrupt.”
His laugh echoed around the room. “Yeah, you’re probably right.”
The bridge was just as amazing as the rest of the ship. Glass and metal surfaces gleamed under the soft lighting. At Valentin’s urging, I sank into the deeply padded captain’s chair and the console in front of me lit with a beautiful blue glow.
“Welcome, Captain Rani,” the ship greeted in the best impersonation of a male human voice I’d ever heard. It was uncanny.
“Thank you,” I murmured instinctively.
“You’re welcome. Please let me know if you need anything. I currently answer to Ardia. Would you like to change my name?”
“No, thank you.”
The ship chimed an acceptance and fell silent.
“That’s not a normal ship computer.”
Valentin laughed. “No, it’s not. I did tell you that I had a few more surprises for you. Ardia—the ship’s computer—is one of them. It’s the latest artificial intelligence assistant. The more you use it, the more it will learn your habits and preferences. It also has a full Kos military module and can control the ship’s offenses, defenses, and flight during hostile maneuvers.”
“Is it any good?”
Valentin’s teeth flashed in a fierce smile. “Yes.”
My fingers itched to launch the ship into the sky, to see how well it handled, but I resisted the temptation. I wanted my first flight to be when Valentin and I could be alone—then we could christen the ship properly.
I stood and wrapped my arms around Valentin, drawing him into a tight hug. “Thank you,” I whispered into his chest.
His arms settled around me, returning my embrace. “You’re welcome.”
I enjoyed the simple pleasure of the hug before I pulled back enough that I could see Valentin’s face. “Should we see if Luka and Ari are still alive?”
He reluctantly let me go. “If we must.”
“We must. But nothing’s stopping us from returning later tonight for a private flight. Just the two of us. Assuming you can get away from your overprotective shadow.”
“I’ll make it happen,” Valentin promised, his eyes full of heat.
I nodded in silent agreement and led him back to the cargo bay. Despite my concern, Ari and Luka were chatting comfortably. Well, Ari was chatting and Luka was listening. Once I got close, I realized Ari was telling him about how Imogen had waded into a drunken fistfight between two men twice her size and came out without so much as a single bruise.
I couldn’t decide if the story was designed to be a warning or an enticement, but Luka was listening avidly—or as avid as I’d ever seen him, which meant his scowl was barely visible.
A mischievous smile tipped up the corner of Ari’s mouth. “Imogen has an undefeated record against all opponents in friendly bouts. Even our illustrious queen gave it a go and Imogen didn’t break a sweat.”
In a friendly match, Imogen could—and did—kick my ass. We were evenly matched in strength and speed, and I couldn’t put her down without seriously hurting her. So I’d lost our bout, much to everyone’s delight. But in a true fight, the odds shifted. I had more experience fighting dirty, and enough moral gray area to use every advantage available. If I’d been fighting for my life, the fight would’ve been over in seconds with a very different outcome.
“You lost?” Valentin asked with a grin.
“Badly,” I agreed. “Imogen looks all cute and harmless but get her in a ring and she’s a force of nature. Don’t let her con you into a match unless you like eating floor.”
Ari’s expression turned angelic, a sure sign she was up to something. “I bet Luka here could hold his own.” She turned to him. “Care to try?”
Imogen had apparently sparred with Luka in Koan and said he moved like liquid, which was high praise coming from her, but I had a feeling she’d like a much more private round with him.
“I’ve seen her in action,” Luka said. “She’s undefeated for a reason.”
I smiled at the diplomatic response, and headed Ari off before she could press him further. “We’re done on the ship. Let’s show Luka and Valentin to the guest suite.”
Ari nodded and headed down the ramp, then she linked me privately. You’re no fun.
It was the second time today that someone had reminded me that I was a stick-in-the-mud. I tried not to take it too personally—professional stick-in-the-mud was basically my job as queen. And that cosmic joke would never get old. If my younger self could see me now, she’d think I’d been replaced by an alien.
I doubt Imogen wants their reunion to be a public spectacle, I said over the link. Invite her to the planning meetings. In fact, invite her to meet us at the guest suite. She can be the official security liaison while they’re here.
And what am I? Ari grumbled.
Ari had no argument for that, so she dropped the link without a response.