The Queen’s Advantage

The Queen's Advantage Cover
Part of the Rogue Queen series:

When Queen Samara Rani fulfills the promise she made to Emperor Valentin Kos to visit his court and meet with his advisors, she knows they won’t welcome her with open arms, especially when she’s been tasked with discovering the traitors within their ranks—traitors she tricked out of five million credits.

As soon as Samara begins her investigation it becomes clear that Valentin’s advisors want her gone and they aren’t picky about how. After their tactics turn violent, Samara and Valentin race to unravel the web of treachery and lies before the next attack ends in tragedy.

When the conflict escalates in ferocity and rumors start blaming Samara, she is forced to continue her hunt alone. Uncovering traitors is difficult when courtiers learn to lie before they learn to walk, and one misstep could cost her life. However, Rogue Queens aren’t easy to kill and Samara has more than a few tricks of her own.

Excerpt:

CHAPTER ONE

Butterflies fluttered in my stomach as I secured the last of my supplies in Invictia’s cargo bay. Now I had everything I needed for my trip to Koan, the Kos Empire’s capital city. In just a few hours, I would get to see Emperor Valentin Kos in person for the first time in over a month.

Unfortunately, this trip was more business than pleasure. I’d promised Valentin four weeks of my time to help him root out the traitors in his court, and I’d done all of the remote research I could, so now it was time to meet his advisors in person. I was sure they were going to be delighted to welcome the Rogue Queen into their midst—the Rogue Queen who had tricked them out of several million credits.

Ha.

Arietta Mueller, my best friend and head of security, grumbled under her breath from her position near Invictia’s cargo bay door. She worried about me like it was her job—and it kind of was. Tall, with blond hair and pale skin, Ari was gorgeous. She was impossible to ignore even when she wasn’t audibly calling attention to herself.

I had decided not to take Ari with me on this trip, but she was still trying to change my mind. She had waged her campaign for the last two weeks with the ruthless determination that made her a terror on the battlefield. She’d even gotten her wife involved, and Dr. Stella Mueller had long ago perfected her intimidation tactics.

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Despite everything, I’d held firm. I was going to be gone for at least two weeks, maybe longer. I’d planned to split my four-week debt into two trips, but if things went exceedingly well—or poorly—this trip, then I might need to stay the whole month. I needed Ari and Stella here in Arx to keep an eye on things. I had other advisors, but none I trusted as much as my closest friends.

Cargo secure, I joined Ari near the door. “Spit it out,” I said.

“What?”

“You’ve been grumbling more than usual for the last ten minutes. What’s up? Are you concerned about Imogen?” I asked, naming the guard I was taking with me. I could generally protect myself, but I’d decided a second set of eyes in hostile territory might be a good idea. “I thought she was your first choice.”

I should be going with you, Samara.”

I took a deep breath and tried to remember that I would be just as annoying if our roles were reversed.

She continued, “I can’t shake the feeling that something is going to go wrong. Valentin’s advisors tried to kill him and you’re putting yourself right in the middle of it. It’s making me crazy. I’m sorry, I know I’m being a pain in the ass.”

“I’m uneasy, too,” I confessed. In order to help Valentin ferret out who was loyal and who wasn’t, I would be inserting myself directly into the web of lies and treachery binding him and his court. I’d spent weeks carefully researching his top advisors, and while I hadn’t uncovered anything definitively treasonous, several of them had some questionable connections. “That’s why I want you here to look after things for the Rogue Coalition. You know I can take care of myself.”

She nodded in grumpy agreement. “I know. And I made Imogen promise to stick to you like glue, but I still don’t like it.”

“You don’t have to like it—”

“I just have to do it,” she finished. “Yeah, yeah, I know. Come say good-bye to Stella, then get out of here before I change my mind and lock you in your suite.” Concern lurked under her gruff words.

“I’ll be careful, Ari,” I promised.

“You’d better be,” Stella demanded as she climbed the cargo ramp. “I won’t be there to patch you up this time.” Stella was a few centimeters taller than me, with warm brown skin, long dark hair, and dark eyes that sparkled with hidden humor. She was as beautiful as her wife, and they made a stunning couple.

At thirty, I was old enough to be secure about my own appearance. My face was attractive enough, but I would never be mistaken for beautiful. However, my petite build, light brown skin, and long dark hair gave me a delicate charm. I wasn’t in the same league as Ari and Stella, and that worked well for me. It was harder to blend in when every eye in the room was drawn to you.

“I’m hoping I won’t need to be patched up this time,” I said, “but if I do, you know I’ll miss your gentle bedside manner.”

Stella huffed out a laugh. She was one of the best doctors I knew, but she ran medical like a despot. “I’ll remember that the next time you come to me with your insides on the outside.”

I grinned at her. “You know I love you, Stella. Try to keep Ari from sulking too much while I’m gone.”

“I could break you in half and then you wouldn’t have to go,” Ari threatened mildly.

Stella rolled her eyes. “Return to us in one piece because stars know that none of the rest of us can hold this ship together.”

“Nor do we want to,” Ari added, “so be careful.”

“I will be,” I promised. I just hoped it was a promise I could keep.


Invictia tunneled to Achenstev Prime, the Kos Empire’s planetary headquarters, in a single transit. We were practically neighbors, cosmically speaking. The planet glowed lush green and sparkling blue on Invictia’s screens. Koan was situated near the equator and offered a temperate climate year-round.

We were awaiting landing clearance and had been parked in orbit for nearly fifteen minutes while a corvette-class warship slowly closed on us. Imogen growled when ground control put us off again. “Maybe they’re hoping we die of old age before they have to let us land,” she said. “Or maybe they’re waiting for that corvette to get within attack range and solve the problem for them.”

I kept a wary eye on the corvette’s trajectory. Valentin knew I was coming. I wouldn’t expect his warships to be a threat, but someone in his cabinet also wanted him dead, so perhaps the treachery ran deeper than I thought.

I kept my thoughts to myself and my tone light. “Maybe it just takes time to roll out the appropriate pomp and circumstance for a visiting queen. I’m very important, you know.” I tilted my chin in the air and waved an imperious arm.

Imogen snorted, then laughed. “If it were up to you, we’d sneak in a back door.”

Truth be told, I’d suggested it, but Ari had forbidden me from trying it in no uncertain terms. This was to be an official visit where the Kos Empire should be obliged to ensure my safety, but current circumstances were testing that theory. I wasn’t worried about Valentin stabbing me in the back, but I wouldn’t trust his advisors not to try, given half an opportunity.

As it was, I decided I’d waited long enough. Patience had never been my strong suit, and in another three minutes, the corvette would be close enough to be a real threat. I reached out to Valentin via a voice-only neural link. When he accepted the connection, I asked, Are your ground crews planning to let us land sometime today or am I going to have to cause an intergalactic incident?

I could hear the smile in his mental voice when he said, Maybe save the incident for later. I’ll contact the ground crews and get you clearance, then meet you at the spaceport.

He closed the connection before I could tell him that he didn’t need to meet me in person. Nervous anticipation rippled through my system. I’d be seeing Valentin face-to-face, and soon.

“Finally,” Imogen muttered under her breath when the approval came through a minute later.

“I linked Valentin,” I said. “He’s meeting us at the spaceport.”

Imogen slanted me a sly glance, but she kept her thoughts to herself. Despite living in Arx for nearly two years, she still tended to think of me as queen first, Samara second, and acted accordingly. I hoped this trip would break through some of her reserve.

Invictia cut smoothly through the atmosphere. She’d spent weeks in dry dock for repairs after my last run-in with a warship. There were still a few things that needed fixing, but she was space-worthy, and there was no other ship I’d rather have. Invictia had been my first real home, and she’d gotten me out of more scrapes than I could count. This ship was not only my most valuable possession, she was also my most cherished.

It was a relief to be landing rather than trying to outrun a corvette.

As we approached, Koan sparkled below us, a metropolis of glass and metal reaching for the sky. The Imperial Garden—a huge, three-hundred-hectare park that surrounded the palace—looked like a green oasis in the heart of the city.

The palace itself was a sprawling complex. A large, ornate stone building housed the main residence and ceremonial chambers. While the building was in pristine condition, it clearly was a product of another era—one long past—and a testament to the lasting power of the Kos Empire. A few other buildings clustered nearby, including a tall modern glass tower that held most of the government offices and guest quarters.

I’d been to Koan once, many years ago, and the memories were not happy ones. I hoped this trip would end far better.

Valentin had gotten us cleared to land in the palace spaceport at the edge of the park, which meant I had to have my game face on as soon as we touched down. I would’ve much preferred landing in the main spaceport outside the city and making my own way to the palace, but that wasn’t how queens traveled. Unfortunately.

Invictia settled onto an outdoor landing pad, between two larger ships painted in the black and red of the Kos Empire colors. The vid screens showed a small group of people piling out of a quartet of transports. Everyone was dressed in full ceremonial attire.

I was glad Ari and Stella had talked me into buying a new wardrobe. I didn’t care how I looked, but based on the cluster of people below, Stella had been right—no one would take me seriously in my usual clothes. Here, I was Queen Rani of the Rogue Coalition, not Samara Rani, a nobody from a backwater planet no one had ever heard of. And while it might be fun to see his advisors turn their noses up at me, I was here to help Valentin, not stir up trouble.

At least not yet.

I stood and brushed a hand down my black blouse and gray slacks. I’d had my new clothes custom-tailored in technical fabrics that were hideously expensive. The fabric looked like a normal weave, but it could block light blades and glancing plasma pulses, so the expense had been worth it.

The tailor had also added an assortment of hidden pockets for my weapons, even to the dresses, so anyone who thought to catch me unarmed would be in for a surprise.

My feet were encased in a pair of black ankle boots with short, sturdy heels because I’d drawn the line at shoes I couldn’t run in. I’d also brought a range of flats and a pair of tall boots.

“Ready?” I asked.

Imogen nodded and stood. At a meter seventy-five, she was ten centimeters taller than me. She wore slim black pants and a pale pink button-down that complemented her deep brown skin. Short, tight black curls haloed her head and accented her impressive cheekbones. Together with her curvy, hourglass figure, she looked beautiful and harmless.

It was exactly the right look for a bodyguard.

Her appearance didn’t reveal that she had speed and strength augments that rivaled my own. She could lift and carry a man twice her size without breaking a sweat. And if it came down to it, she could put him on the ground in half a heartbeat. I’d seen her in training and would not want to go hand-to-hand with her on my best day.

We stopped in the cargo hold. I lifted the hem of my blouse, revealing the holster tucked into the curve of my waist. An undershirt prevented it from chafing—this wasn’t my first rodeo. I slipped a small plasma pistol into the holster and dropped the hem. The flowing fabric of my blouse concealed both gun and holster.

Imogen didn’t need to be quite so subtle. She slung a utility belt around her waist and holstered a much larger plasma pistol. We’d debated putting her in full combat armor, but had decided it would send the wrong message. I’d desperately wanted to watch Valentin’s advisors’ expressions when they figured out my bodyguard came kitted out in prototype Kos armor, but I’d managed to refrain. Barely.

Between the two of us, we had three trunks of clothes and accessories. Most of that space was dedicated to my new wardrobe. A fourth trunk held all of the weapons and other gadgets we might need. It would stay on the ship until I was sure we could smuggle it in without getting searched.

I linked to the sled that held the three trunks we were taking and put it in follow mode. It hovered at knee height. I nudged it to ensure the gyroscopes were working. It slid back a few centimeters, then stabilized. Good enough.

“Don’t let them separate us,” Imogen reminded me. “We should be put in a suite together. If we are not, then you should insist on it.”

“I will. If I miss something, speak up. I’m not used to having a bodyguard. I’ll likely forget some of the rules, so let me know when that happens. I won’t get mad at you for speaking your mind.”

Imogen smiled. “I’ll remind you that you said that. Ari warned me to keep an eye on you or you’d vanish, so expect me to be constantly underfoot.”

“Ari worries too much, but I’ll try not to vanish without letting you know.”

I opened the cargo bay door. Valentin stood at the bottom of the ramp, clad in a formal red coat, black pants, and tall black boots. Black braided rope encircled one shoulder and the host of medals on his chest must’ve weighed a kilogram, at least. A brilliant gold crown sparkled against his dark hair.

I smiled despite myself. How he managed to remain incredibly handsome even in that ridiculous getup, I’d never know, but he did. Stella had tried to persuade me that I should wear a crown and I’d laughed. If she found out that Valentin had arrived in full regalia, I’d never hear the end of it.

Valentin grinned at me and the swarm of butterflies in my stomach turned into a herd of elephants.

I led Imogen and the cargo sled toward Valentin. Once we were clear of the cargo bay, I used my mental link to Invictia to put the ship into lockdown with a two-meter proximity alert that would alert me if anyone approached the ship. Invictia wouldn’t unlock for anyone other than myself or Imogen, but I wanted to know if anyone was poking around where they shouldn’t be.

I tore my eyes away from Valentin long enough to assess the people with him. Luka Fox, Valentin’s bodyguard, was clad in all black and towered behind Valentin’s right shoulder. Luka had wavy ice-blond hair, a muscular build, and a scowl that would send lesser mortals fleeing for their lives.

When he caught my eye, his scowl deepened. I’d met him in Arx, and I was not his favorite person, mostly because I’d let Ari commandeer his armor. I smiled brightly at him. His eyes narrowed, but otherwise, he didn’t rise to my baiting.

To Valentin’s left and a meter behind him, three men and three women waited in long black and red ceremonial robes. These were Valentin’s top advisors. I’d researched them, and I was pleased to find that I recognized all of their faces. One or more of them wanted Valentin dead.

My job was to figure out who.

The advisors’ expressions ranged from open hostility to fake, plastic smiles. Only one person seemed to be genuinely happy to be here—Myra Shah, the Imperial Guard advisor. She was the only one who acknowledged me with a slight incline of her head. The others stared through me as if I didn’t exist.

Valentin closed the distance between us, took my hands, and kissed the air next to my cheek. Heat rushed through me as I remembered the last time we were this close, but he kept the greeting formal. “Welcome to Koan, Queen Rani,” he said, his voice warm. “The Kos Empire will do our utmost to ensure your comfort and safety during your stay.”

He let go and stepped back. The medals on his chest jingled every time he moved. It grounded me in the moment, and I was grateful. He shifted and the medals clinked together again. I bit my lip to prevent myself from snickering at him. From the laughter in his gray eyes, he knew exactly what I was thinking.

I bowed a few degrees—enough to be respectful, but so not much that I appeared subservient. Stella had coached me on the proper etiquette. “The Rogue Coalition thanks you for your hospitality, Emperor Kos,” I said. “I am here on a peaceful diplomatic mission.”

Someone in the group snorted.

I leaned around Valentin and pointedly stared at his advisors. “I may be here for peace, but I am well-equipped to defend myself, should it be necessary.” I gave them a cold smile. “Try me and you will regret it.”

CHAPTER TWO

Chaos erupted behind Valentin. “You dare—” Oskar Krystopa, the dark-haired military strategy advisor started, but Valentin slashed a hand through the air, and Oskar bit off the rest of the sentence.

“Your safety will be our priority,” Valentin said. “Allow me to introduce my bodyguard and advisors.”

“Of course,” I agreed with a smile as fake as the welcome I had received from said advisors. I had to pretend that I didn’t already know far more about each of them than they would probably prefer.

Valentin swept an arm toward Luka. “You’ve already met Luka Fox, my bodyguard. If your guard needs anything while you are here, Luka will take care of it.”

I nodded at Luka. I wasn’t an expert in imperial etiquette, but I was pretty sure Valentin had snubbed his advisors by introducing his bodyguard first—a snub I was happy to continue.

“This is Imogen Weber, my bodyguard,” I said. “Imogen, meet Emperor Kos and Luka Fox.”

“A pleasure,” Imogen said with a short bow. After a brief glance at Valentin, her eyes returned to Luka before scanning the area. She always kept Luka in sight, and she had the loose, ready body posture that meant she saw him as a threat. Luka’s expression remained impossible to read, but he watched Imogen with steady focus.

Valentin turned to Oskar, who still seethed over my very reasonable statement. “This is Oskar Krystopa. He leads military strategy.”

Oskar was older, probably in his mid-fifties, despite the lack of gray in his black hair. He had olive skin, green eyes, and curls that just brushed the tops of his ears. He would’ve been handsome if he hadn’t been so busy scowling, but based on the lines in his forehead—and the rumor mill—this was his perpetual expression. He did not bow, and he managed to make his tone convey his sneer. “Queen Rani.”

I gave him a bright, sharp smile. “Advisor Krystopa.”

Next, Valentin introduced Junior Mobb, the medical advisor and chief doctor. A handsome man in his thirties with ebony skin and close-cropped black hair, Junior appeared indifferent to my presence. His curt greeting seemed less like rudeness and more like distraction. He had the distant look of someone conversing via neural link. He was, by all accounts, a brilliant doctor.

Hannah Perkins was introduced as the head of diplomatic relations. She was a faded beauty with wrinkled ivory skin and graying red hair, but her eyes were sharp. She wasn’t as openly hostile as Oskar, but she wasn’t welcoming, either. She was married to Valentin’s distant cousin and had been an advisor for nearly thirty years.

Asmo Copley, the advisor for domestic affairs, immediately rubbed me the wrong way. Tan skin, dark brown hair, and brown eyes were common enough, but he’d been blessed with exceeding beauty—and he knew it. He laid on the false charm with a shovel. I smiled politely and ignored him. He came from a powerful family and expected me to fall at his feet. When I didn’t, I became a challenge, someone interesting. Before he could try a new tactic, Valentin moved on.

Joanna Cook, the science and technology advisor and lead scientist, was a no-nonsense pale blonde woman in her forties who looked like she’d rather be anywhere else than standing in the open, in a formal robe, greeting royalty. She wore glasses despite the fact that a myriad of options existed to fix her vision, either with surgery or augmentation. According to my research, she was smart and driven, but mostly kept to herself.

Valentin turned to the final woman, the only person who had acknowledged me on my way from the ship. “And last, but by no means least, Myra Shah, head of the Imperial Guard.” Warmth infused his voice, a first.

Myra was around my age with golden skin and a chin-length straight black bob. Her face was more striking than beautiful, all sharp angles and slashing eyebrows, but her expression appeared genuinely welcoming and her dark eyes sparkled with intelligence. “Queen Rani,” she said with a shallow bow, “it is a pleasure to finally meet you. Welcome to Koan.”

I returned her bow. “Thank you, Advisor Shah. The pleasure is mine.” And this time, I almost meant it. I hadn’t been able to turn up anything questionable in my research on her—and I had tried. As part of the Imperial Guard, she had the best access to Valentin, so she was the biggest threat if she turned traitor.

She grinned knowingly. “Please, call me Myra, and let me know if you need anything during your stay.”

I inclined my head in agreement.

“Are we done here?” Oskar asked. “I’m late for an important meeting.”

Valentin stiffened at the thinly veiled insult, but I just smiled. Oskar would have to do better than that if he wanted me to take offense. “I’m sure they won’t mind starting without you,” I said in my sweetest voice.

Myra burst into a spontaneous coughing fit that sounded a lot like suppressed laughter. Oskar flushed in anger but didn’t do more than narrow his eyes at me. Coward.

I’d caught the attention of the other advisors, and I covertly gauged their reactions. None of them jumped to Oskar’s defense. Hannah’s expression turned disapproving, as if I were a child in need of discipline, but the others were more circumspect. I got the impression that Asmo also disapproved, but his true expression was harder to read behind the charming facade.

“You are dismissed,” Valentin said sharply. “My afternoon meetings are canceled today. I will see you tonight at Queen Rani’s welcome dinner.”

Oskar grumbled something too low for me to catch, but Valentin stiffened and turned to him. “Did you have something to add, Advisor Krystopa?”

“No, Your Majesty,” he said. “Until dinner.” He bowed and left. The others followed suit, taking three of the four waiting transports.

“Well, they were lovely,” I said once Valentin and I were alone with Luka and Imogen.

Valentin laughed. “Those were only my top advisors. There are dozens more just like them who fulfill lesser roles, but they don’t report to me directly.”

“Anyone I should especially keep an eye on?” I didn’t want to tell Valentin that I’d done my own research until I got his opinion first.

“I’d put credits on Myra’s loyalty, but I’ve been burned before,” he said. “Everyone else is in play. None of them have made any obvious moves, and they all guard their communications closely.”

Valentin had neural link abilities I’d never seen before. When I raised an eyebrow in question, his eyes flickered to Imogen before he said, “They are being extremely careful.”

“Not exactly innocent behavior,” I commented.

“No, but I need to figure out who is actively working against me and who is just looking out for number one.”

“You could just fire them all and see who tries to kill you for it.”

“If I did that, they would all try,” Valentin said drily. He gestured toward the remaining transport. “Shall we?”

I’d been prepared to walk, but I supposed royalty didn’t walk. Valentin and Luka loaded my trunks for me despite my assurance that I was perfectly capable of lifting a container full of clothes. I returned the sled to Invictia while Imogen waited with the transport and scanned our surroundings for threats.

Valentin had Luka, but if someone wanted him dead, he was far too exposed out in the open like this. A glance revealed at least a dozen vantage points where a sharpshooter would be close enough for a kill shot, but far enough away to escape detection.

“Do you monitor the surrounding buildings?” I asked when I returned to the waiting transport.

Valentin frowned for a second before his expression cleared. “Koan is safe.”

I laughed at the absurdity. “Nowhere is safe if you have a price on your head. Do you mean to say that you’ve never had anyone try while you were here?”

“I appreciate your concern,” he said, dodging the question. “Buildings and airspace facing the imperial grounds are both monitored, and we’ve stepped up security for the duration of your visit.”

I let it go. He’d survived this long without my help, so perhaps he knew something I didn’t. I made a mental note to discuss it with him later, when we were alone. Maybe he would be more forthcoming then.


The transport hugged the ground on the way to the palace, giving us an incredible view of the colorful gardens. Valentin pointed out the landmarks while Imogen and Luka scanned out the windows and surreptitiously watched each other.

The trees and shrubs opened, revealing a long stretch of green lawn. Valentin gestured to the circular stone folly in the distance. Marble columns held up a second-level balcony, and a domed third story offered a view of the garden. “My great-grandfather had that commissioned for my great-grandmother, to remind her of the architecture of her home. He—”

I caught a glint of white from under the dome of the folly. Before I could focus on it fully, Imogen shoved me to the floor and landed on top of me. Half a heartbeat later, Valentin landed next to me, Luka over him, and the transport jerked sideways. Bright yellow light flashed outside and a boom shook the vehicle.

Someone was shooting explosive rockets at us. “Tell me again how safe Koan is,” I muttered to myself. The distinctive thunk-sizzle of plasma pulses raked the side of the transport facing the folly, but the reinforced windows and side panels held. For now.

Our attackers were shooting automatic, high-powered, long-range plasma rifles at us. Those types of weapons were expensive and hard to find outside the military. Not impossible, as evidenced by my armory in Arx, but not something amateurs would use. This was a precision strike, not an attack of opportunity.

The transport lurched sideways, then rapidly gained altitude as more explosions hit nearby. Flattened to the floor, I couldn’t draw my pistol. I pressed up against Imogen, but she held her ground. “Stay down, Samara,” she insisted. I stayed down. I wasn’t sure that the floor was any safer, but at least I wouldn’t be tossed about as the transport evaded the attack.

Luka and Valentin were strangely silent. I wiggled around until I could see both of them. Luka crouched over Valentin’s prone form, plasma pistol drawn. His expression was intense and distant, but every time it flickered, the transport changed direction. He must’ve taken manual control via neural link, which meant I had him to thank for my continued existence.

Valentin’s eyes were closed, but they moved rapidly behind his eyelids. A frown furrowed his forehead and his jaw clenched. Whatever he was doing was either difficult or painful. A few seconds later, I had my answer—it was both. A thin trickle of blood ran from his nose.

“Valentin, you’re bleeding,” I whispered.

“Almost there,” he murmured. He winced and the bleeding increased. Just as I was becoming concerned, he opened his eyes. “Got them,” he said with a savage grin. He looked up at Luka. “Team of six, in and around the folly, half the team is falling back to the northern edge of the park.”

Luka nodded, but his expression didn’t change. “I have two squads en route. I will let them know.”

I rolled over and sat up, despite Imogen’s unhappy protest. I’d never felt so useless or helpless. I burned with the need to do something, but trapped in the armored transport, there was nothing I could do. “How long until we’re down?” I asked.

“Two minutes,” Luka said without looking at me.

Two minutes might as well be two decades. The attackers would be long gone by the time I circled back, even if I left immediately, so hurrying wouldn’t help. Hopefully Valentin’s soldiers would catch one of them before they fled.

Valentin sat up and wiped away the blood. He caught my eye, then a second later, he sent me a neural link request. When I accepted, he said, I’m sorry. I promised you safety and failed.

I’m still alive, aren’t I?

You know what I mean. I expected them to try something, but not so soon, and not so close to the palace. They should not have been able to infiltrate the folly without being noticed, either by patrols or drone sweeps. This is further proof that they have inside help.

That’s why I’m here. Do you trust Luka?

With my life, he said. He’s had my back for longer than I’ve been emperor.

I need to drop off my stuff, and then I want to check out the folly, to see if the attackers were careless enough to leave any clues. Unless you have video surveillance. Or trust your people to handle it and agree to answer my questions.

Valentin paused before saying, The surveillance malfunctioned or was sabotaged. I will show you to your suite and then accompany you to the folly.

So he didn’t have video and he didn’t trust his soldiers, at least not all of them. It wasn’t entirely surprising, but it would make the afternoon more dangerous. It would be best if I could slip out on my own to do a little undercover recon.

The transport landed in an enclosed hangar. The door opened to reveal a squad of nine soldiers in Imperial Guard uniforms with weapons drawn. Luka and Valentin exited without hesitation, so I assumed these must be trusted guards and not a group here to murder us.

A man in his mid-thirties with light brown hair and brown eyes rushed up to us. “Valentin! I’m so glad you’re okay. I coordinated teams to search the garden, as requested, and I’m working on the surveillance video.”

“Thank you.” Valentin turned to me. “Queen Rani, may I introduce my assistant, Lewis Birlow. Lewis, this is Queen Rani.”

Lewis bowed low. “It is a pleasure to finally meet you.” Unlike most of Valentin’s advisors, Lewis seemed sincere. He was handsome, in a wholesome sort of way, with a willowy build and neatly pressed clothes.

I inclined my head. “It’s nice to meet you, too.”

My research hadn’t been able to turn up much on Lewis. He’d worked with Valentin for years but generally kept to himself. There were a few old rumors of excessive spending, but I hadn’t found anything recent to substantiate them.

Valentin and Lewis began discussing search patterns. Under her breath, Imogen asked, “Are you okay?”

“Yes. Thanks for protecting me. You spotted the threat before I did.”

She smiled. “Changing locations is always risky, so I was on alert.”

“I appreciate it. Valentin is going to show us to our room, then I’m heading out to the attack location to see what I can find. You’re welcome to come with or stay here, your choice.”

I expected her to grumble about the danger, but she just said, “Consider me your personal shadow for the duration of our trip.”

COLLAPSE