Imogen waited for us at the door to the guest suite. She had deep brown skin, striking cheekbones, and short, curly black hair. She must’ve come from work because she had on a long-sleeved purple shirt, black utility pants, and heavy boots. Even in her work clothes she looked gorgeous and harmless which led people to assume she was harmless—much to their regret.
If I hadn’t been paying attention, I wouldn’t have noticed the tiny change in her expression when she spotted Luka. She was playing it very cool, as was he, but her eyes were just a tiny bit brighter when she smiled at us in greeting.
“Imogen, you remember Valentin and Luka?” I asked. When she nodded, I continued, “I’m assigning you as their security liaison while they’re here. If you need anything, contact me or Ari directly.”
“Will do.” She turned to the two men. “It’s nice to see you again.”
“You, too,” Valentin said.
Luka grunted in acknowledgment, and Imogen rolled her eyes. “I see you haven’t learned how to use your words, yet.” She gave him a smile edged with mischievousness. “Let me show you the suite’s security features so you can prevent your principal from being murdered while you sleep.”
If Luka realized she was tossing his words from Koan back at him, he didn’t show it. But he eased closer to her and inclined his head in agreement.
After a brief tour of the suite, which we’d cleaned out after Valentin’s first visit, we went to meet up with the rest of my advisory council. Ari had helpfully called them together to discuss our strategy for dealing with Adams, and by the smug look on her face, she’d done it so I would be forced to include her—and everyone else—in my plans.
That was the problem with a best friend who was too damn smart and observant.
On the way to the council chamber, I desperately tried to come up with a plan that wouldn’t get anyone I cared about killed. My initial meeting location had been discarded, as I’d known it would be. It had been deep in Kos territory, an opening gambit designed to fail. I’d given Hannah a list of acceptable locations and she and Adams had eventually settled on Caldwell Prime 57.
It wasn’t my first choice, but it wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been, either. CP57 was a space station in the disputed zone between the Quint Confederacy and the Kos Empire. They’d gotten tired of the perpetual war, so they’d declared themselves independent, something they could do because a majority of the universe’s information and black market goods moved through the station.
They had the money and power that the Rogue Coalition lacked.
The station was a sprawling complex that continually grew. More than half a million people called it home and ten times that many transited through it every year. It was both the best and worst type of place to meet.
On the positive side, there were plenty of places to hide and it was easy to get lost in a crowd. Setting up an ambush would be tricky but not impossible in some areas where station security wasn’t as diligent as they should be. But the same was true for Adams, as well. Everything that benefitted us, benefitted him, too.
And one of the best information brokers in the ’verse called CP57 home. We would have to be very, very careful or they would know what we were up to before we even arrived.
The council chamber—a glorified meeting room with a large rectangular table—was nearly full when we arrived. Ari, who was both my security and military advisor, went to greet her wife. Stella Mueller ran medical for Arx and was my medical advisor. Zita was my food and nutrition advisor. She no longer scowled at me, so I hoped that meant Eddie had already apologized to her.
On the far side of the table, Arthur Brown, my mercenary and trade advisor, sat next to Tasha Rizak, my fleet advisor. Arthur was in his sixties, his tan skin grizzled and scarred, with white hair and a build that remained thick with muscle. Next to him, Tasha seemed especially young and tiny, even though she was in her early thirties and of average height and build.
Tasha was beautiful, with deep ebony skin and a dazzling smile. She would rather be elbow deep in a ship’s internals than in a council meeting, but she’d reluctantly agreed to advise me on how we should spend our relatively tiny ship-purchasing budget. No one knew more about our existing ships and their capabilities.
Rounding out the table were three elected officials representing the public—two women and one man. If my advisors couldn’t agree on an issue, the public votes were given more sway. As queen, I technically had final say, but I had only broken from my advisors’ counsel a handful of times.
Valentin was met with polite smiles and cool nods. When I seated him beside me at the head of the table, a quiet ripple ran through the room. “Problem?” I asked sweetly.
No one was fooled by my saccharine tone and the murmur subsided.
“What do we know about CP57?” I asked the table.
“We have people there,” Arthur said. “Most of our information comes from long-term residents who are family to our citizens, but I sent a pair of teams over last week to establish better connections. If Adams is doing the same, he’s keeping it quiet.”
I had also sent people, but I’d done it before Hannah had contacted Adams. My team reported much the same: if Adams was establishing connections, he was being very careful. And careful wasn’t good for us.
“He won’t be able to blockade the station,” Ari said. “He doesn’t have the ships, firepower, or political clout. So his best bet is to either attack or abduct you on-station, and then fall back to a more powerful position.”
“For the record, we don’t have the ships to blockade the station, either,” Tasha said. “We barely have enough working ships to get to the station.”
“We could do it,” Valentin said.
The whole table side-eyed him.
“I’m not saying we will, I’m just saying the Kos Empire is capable, if that’s something we need to consider.”
“While I appreciate the offer, we’re trying to get you out of a war, not start another one,” I said. “So we need to be prepared for Adams to run, which means we need to tag his ship. Do we have anyone with access to the docking database?”
“I might have someone,” Arthur said. “I’ll have to check with my contacts.”
Ships needed permission to dock anywhere on CP57, but it was relatively easy to fake a ship’s registration data. If we didn’t have anyone on the inside with enough access, I’d have to use one of my outside contacts, which carried a risk. I trusted them, but as my former security specialist had proven, even trust and years of working together wasn’t always enough to prevent betrayal.
“How many people are you planning to take with you?” Ari asked, a hard gleam in her eye.
“As few as possible. We can’t leave the Rogue Coalition unprotected while I’m away. It would be best if I went alone.”
The table erupted in chaos.
Valentin turned to me, his expression grave. “Please don’t go alone.”
“I worked alone for years. I know what I’m doing.”
He shook his head. “That’s not what I meant. I don’t doubt your skill. But you don’t have to work alone. You have a team. Use them. Use me. You have plenty of people ready and willing to help.”
“He’s right,” Ari agreed quietly. The rest of the table nodded.
I knew he was right, but I couldn’t live with myself if anyone got hurt because of my plan. It was one thing to risk myself and something entirely different to risk those I cared about.
“Okay,” I agreed at last, “I will agree to a very small team—six or eight only. Maybe another one or two to tag Adams’s ship in case he slips through our net. And if anyone is going to play bait, it will be me.” I slashed my hand through the air when Stella looked ready to argue. “Or I will go alone.”
No one looked particularly happy, but we got down to the work of planning. We talked through various plans and weighed the pros and cons. Ideally, we would separate Adams from his own team and take him alive, but that was the least likely scenario.
By the time we were done, it was dinnertime and we had the beginnings of a working plan: draw Adams out, capture or kill him, and ensure his crew didn’t escape. It sounded so easy, but there were a million points where things could go wrong—and would. Worry gnawed at me, especially because the team consisted of people I held dear: Ari, Stella, Imogen, Eddie, Valentin, Luka, and myself.
I stood and stretched, ending the meeting. My body was locked in fight or flight mode and I needed to burn off some adrenaline before I gave myself an ulcer.
Stella stopped beside me on her way out, her voice pitched for my ears only. “We know what we’re doing, too. You don’t always have to put yourself between us and danger.”
“But I will.”
She nodded. “I know. It makes you a good queen and a terrible patient.” Her dark eyes were clear and solemn. “We’ve all seen war. We know the risks. But more than that, we’re your friends. Everything you feel when we’re in danger, we feel that for you. It hurts when you throw yourself into danger for us. You’re saving yourself pain by making us feel it. Don’t be that selfish.”
I sucked in a quiet breath and bit off the defensive replies I wanted to give. It was my job. I was best equipped. They could survive without me.
And the whole time I was away, my friends would worry about me. I was selfish.
I nodded, once, sharply, without saying anything. Stella pulled me into a gentle hug. “We love you, Samara. Don’t forget that.”
“Thank you,” I murmured.
“Will we see you at dinner?”
“No. I asked Eddie to send us a meal in the guest suite.”
Stella’s grin turned sly. “In that case, I’ll see you tomorrow. Sleep well. Don’t stay up too late.” She didn’t wink, but her meaning was clear enough.
I snuck a glance at Valentin, who waited patiently with Luka and Imogen. When he caught me looking, his smile warmed. Nerves fluttered in my belly. Soon, soon I would have him to myself.
Stella chuckled and excused herself, leaving us alone with our guards. I had a plan to ditch them, but I needed Valentin’s agreement.
I sent him a neural link request. He accepted immediately. Are you okay?
Warmth bloomed at the concern in his tone. Yes. Stella only told me a truth I should’ve realized on my own.
Just because it’s true doesn’t mean it isn’t painful.
I inclined my head in silent agreement, but turned the conversation to why I’d contacted him privately in the first place. Can you shake your shadow for the evening?
Valentin’s eyes lit. Depends, he teased. Are you planning to murder me?
I kept my expression serious, though my eyes kept trying to crinkle in amusement. If you’re very good, it’ll only be a little death.
He laughed aloud and pulled me into his arms. I adore you.
The feeling was entirely mutual.
Valentin did manage to shake his shadow, but only because he had ordered Luka to accompany Imogen to the mess hall for dinner and not come back until given permission. Luka had glared grumpily at me, but he’d gone without as much of a fuss as I’d expected. Maybe he was starting to trust me.
And maybe unicorns would wing into our airspace at any moment.
Eddie had outdone himself, with an elegant, three-course meal. And someone had laid the table with real linens, a pair of candles, and fancy china and cutlery. I didn’t know we even owned fancy china.
Valentin opened the bottle of wine that had been left to accompany dinner and poured us each a generous serving. He raised his glass. “To success. And to us.”
I repeated the toast and gently touched my glass to his. The first sip of wine exploded on my tongue, bold and sharp. I hummed in appreciation and Valentin’s gaze snapped to my mouth. My belly tightened in anticipation. Feeling daring, I took another sip and then slowly licked the wine from my lips.
Valentin’s fingers went white around his glass.
Unfortunately, my stomach rumbled and the moment was broken. I covered my face and laughed. “Sorry. I forgot to eat lunch.”
“Then let’s see what your chef has prepared for us. You need to keep your strength up.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”
Valentin’s expression was innocent, but his smile had a wicked edge. “Yes. Don’t you want to test your new ship? We can’t have you passing out at the controls from low blood sugar.”
I pursed my lips to suppress the smile. “I thought you might have more… vigorous… activities in mind to christen my new ship.”
Valentin stared at me with naked desire, his wine glass forgotten. I clenched my muscles against the impulse to crawl into his lap and lose myself in his mouth and body. Soon, soon.
“Such as?” he demanded, his voice rough.
It took me a second to pick up the thread of the conversation. I gave him a coy glance through my lashes. “Hot, sweaty, dirty sex.”
He hadn’t expected me to actually say it and my words hit him like a blow. He reached for me, then aborted the move and clenched the edge of the table. “Eat, now.”
I squirmed in place, on the edge already. “The food can wait.”
He shook his head, his face carved into granite lines of self-control. “No. You didn’t eat lunch. And once I have you, I’m not going to let you go for hours. Eat.”
I felt the shiver all the way to my toes, but I dutifully turned my attention to the food. It was exquisite, but I barely tasted it. I needed a distraction or I wouldn’t make it through dinner. And I was very much looking forward to dessert.
“Do you think Adams will show?”
Valentin considered it for a moment, then nodded. “Like us, he’ll be expecting a trap, but I still think he’ll show. His hubris demands it.”
It did not escape me that the same could be said about me.
I poked at the vegetables on my plate. A month ago, fresh vegetables had been few and far between. If Adams succeeded in pushing Kos and Quint back into war, then my people would suffer along with everyone else.
“We have to stop him,” I murmured. “The peace treaty won’t survive with someone actively working against it, especially if he still has the Quint Chairwoman’s ear.”
“He is well connected,” Valentin confirmed. “He’s been attempting to sow doubt about my sincerity since his time in Koan. So far it appears that Chairwoman Soteras is ignoring him, but that might not last if her council starts pressuring her.”
We lapsed into silence. I knew what I had to do. Selfish or not, I would keep my friends safe, no matter what the cost. Because if I didn’t, so many more people would be hurt.
Adams could not be allowed to escape.